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Brazil: Future Farm of the Planet?
Hank Pellissier   Sep 22, 2010   Ethical Technology  

Hungry? Want to devour a monstrous meal of chicken, pork, beef, orange juice, soybeans, coffee, corn, bananas, and chocolate [cacao & sugar]? Scoop it out of your iron skillet while wiping your saliva with a cotton napkin? And afterwards… relax with some tobacco and a drive in your ethanol-powered auto?

Ahh…feel good? Lindo maravilhoso! Feel… Brazilian? 

image1You will. By 2020 the South American behemoth could easily be the world’s leading exporter in each of those fourteen items, according to the OECD-FAO’s forecast of 40% overall growth in Brazilian agriculture. That astounding acceleration surmounts all other nations. 

Brazil’s recent success is inspiring to technoprogressives because the Portuguese-speaking nation is governed by a democratic socialist “Worker’s Party” that truly cares for the poor, offering services like “People’s Restaurants” that feed 12,000 daily at the price of 50 cents per meal. Infant mortality - an accurate indicator of impoverishment - has also been reduced in many areas of Brazil by as much as 50%. (see link at the end of this article) Brazil’s Worker Party currently offers the most liberal/enlightened agenda of any nation aspiring to Super-Power status.

My personal forecast - shared by numerous other bloggers - is that if China and India are crippled by water shortages, Brazil could become the world’s wealthiest nation by 2040 (its current economy has 8-9% annual growth).

Here’s why:

Brazil is blessed with natural resources as enormous as the Amazon and largely untapped. Thirsty? It’s got one-third of the world’s fresh water reserves - as much renewable water as all of Asia, with shocking potential for hydroelectric power. Lumber? An estimated $600 billion value. Minerals? Rich deposits, especially iron ore. Oil and gas? A gargantuan field recently was discovered offshore, containing perhaps eight billion barrels. 

Agricultural Land? Take a deep breath, farmers. Brazil is presently using only 12% of its potential arable soil, and it still has more virgin territory than anywhere else on earth. The US Department of Agriculture estimates that there remains an additional 420 million acres that could be developed for farming. That’s an area bigger than the sum of France + Belgium + Nigeria, or Alaska + Indiana.


Digest these stats on Brazil’s agricultural exports, drawn primarily from 2007 & 2005 reports:

Chickens: 1st in the world, 41% of export market share
Coffee: 1st in the world, 27% of export market 
Orange juice: 1st in the world, 82% of export market
Soybeans: 1st in the world, 38% of export market
Beef: 1st in the world, 26% of export market 
Sugar: 1st in the world, 39% of export market 
Ethanol: 1st in the world, 52% of export market
Tobacco: 2nd in the world, 17% of export market
Bananas: 2nd in the world, behind India
Pork: 3rd in the world, 15% of export market
Corn: 3rd in the world (behind USA and Argentina)
Black pepper: 3rd in the world (behind Vietnam and Indonesia)
Cotton: 5th in the world (USA is the leader)

chartIn the next decade, Brazil won’t catch world-leading Kazakhstan in flour production, or rice queen Thailand, or California in its nutty expertise (almonds, pistachios, walnuts). But with its vast land reserves, Brazil has mind-boggling potential that is difficult to overrate. To postulate where Brazil might be heading, observe its recent history: the total value of its crops shot up 365% from 1996-2006 ($23 billion to $108 billion). Beef exports increased 176% from 2001-2007; soybean production doubled from 1989-2004. 

Brazil will out-farm all competitors in the future, for reasons already mentioned, plus four more:

1) Favorable weather: no hurricanes or tornadoes, rare droughts, steady sunshine and rain.

2) World-class scientists. They transformed the acidic plains by adding tons of lime, plus they developed a tropical soybean, an ideal grass for their cattle, and efficient “no-till” techniques. 

3) Lower population density than competitors (59 per square mile, compared to India’s 936, China’s 360, EU’s 112, and USA’s 82) ensuring that fertile soil won’t be paved over by human sprawl. 

4) Adept leadership. Outgoing President Luiz Ignacio Lula da Silva will probably be replaced by his chief of staff, Dilma Rousseff, who will continue the fertile economic policies.

Examining this data, I believe that the OECD-FAO Outlook’s anticipation of 40% growth in the decade is extremely conservative. My prediction is that Brazil’s agricultural expansion will double that figure, in the 75-85% range. If this seems hyper-optimistic, just remember: anyone fifteen years ago who correctly envisioned Brazil’s farm future would have been lavishly ridiculed, even though they were as right as I am.


Hank Pellissier serves as IEET Managing Director and is an IEET Affiliate Scholar.


Brazil certainly has plenty of arable land and it’s agricultural output is is many ways astonishing.  However you didn’t address one very important thing in your article.  Amazonian soil is notoriously poor.  Leaf litter is recycled very quickly so nutrients have no chance to build up in the soil.  It’s counter intuitive but the rain forest is built on one of the worst soils in the world. 

Also, my understanding was that Lula is governing more as a centrist than a democratic socialist.

Another good article Hank, I love how well you research all these counter arguments to the “The world is doomed” Malthusean panicmongering talking points like food supplies, overpopulation, and so on.

Also congrats for becoming a IEET Regular! 

BTW, did you see one of my articles got a mention on Next Big Future!

Yes, but are you also arguing that Brazil’s growth is sustainable?  The growth is coming at the expense of irreplaceable rainforest, and all that lovely weather may change as the land becomes arid.  In a rainforest all the soil’s nutrients are stored in the plants.  Once slash and burn comes through, the soil is depleted and needs fertilizers to remain productive.  And so on—and this isn’t to mention the loss of species and native habitat.  Unrestrained agriculture may well spell its own demise.

Hi Matt, Hi Rebecca, Hi Valkyrie—I have comments for all of you. 
for Matt—I did mention briefly that Brazil’s acidic soil is fortified by adding a lot of lime to it, tons of lime.  The soil was really not productive in many places until the lime was added.  Regarding Lulu, yes, I have read many complaints that his Worker’s Party is just not as leftist as it was intended to be, and that he has abandoned many goals and moved to the centre.  Thanks for bringing this up.  His chief of staff will probably be elected in two weeks and she is supposed to carry on his policies.  I haven’t researched Lulu’s politics enough to agree or disagree with you, but I do know that he has an extraordinarily high favorable rating - like 71%.  Thanks again for mentioning it.
for Rebecca - yes, thanks for mentioning the environmental impact of Brazil’s agriculture.  I deliberately avoided it in my article because it is a controversial topic that would be distracting.  One thing I should have mentioned is that Brazil has not yet experienced “global warming” and when it does, I’ve read that that will impact its agriculture.  But I am not clear why, because Brazil has so much water.  Also, I have read various different reports on Brazil’s destruction of rainforest.  Some reports insist that it is primarily the “cerrado” - the plains - that are being cultivated, while others say no, the rainforest is being cleared.  I personally think it is tragic if the rainforest is being cleared, but I also recognize that it is Brazil’s territory, not anyone else’s, and I find it bizarre that the rest of the world presumes to tell Brazil what to do with its land.  Hopefully, NGO’s that protect forests will get involved and save enough forests around the world to keep us oxygenated.  I also hope that beef-eating does not double in the next 30 years, as forecasters predict, because cattle-raising is a major destroyer of rainforests.  Thanks again for bringing this up.
for Valkyrie—congrats on your publication.  I am going to check it out right now!

  Hi! (Evangelical Christian) I pray that this great Brazil, can continue growing in tons of food because, according to scientists, the water will decrease, the soil will dry by sunlight, and also the danger of storms. The world will need food, this grand parents can help combat hunger, especially in Africa.

Dear Hank,

Sorry to have to rain on your parade but you are simply way off the mark.

You say, “I should have mentioned is that Brazil has not yet experienced “global warming” and when it does, I’ve read that that will impact its agriculture.”

Have you not been following the news? Rio Janeiro state just experienced one of the worst flooding disasters in the history of Brazil. And the 2010 Amazonian drought was even worse than the “once-in-a-hundred-year” drought of 2005. The warming of the sea surface temperatures of the tropical North Atlantic contributes more moisture into the air which changes both the air current patterns and rainfall. The old “normal” climate patterns in Brazil are vanishing to be replaced by both more flooding in the south and longer more intense droughts across the interior.

Indeed, this will have a HUGE impact not only for agricultural production but also for anticipated hydro-electric energy production from Amazonia where whole rivers have been drying up. This is probably one of the reasons that the development bank of Brazil—BNDES—has stated that it will not release a $640 million loan to start work on the Belo Monte dam until the full 40 environmental licensing requirements are met.

Bankers are not treehuggers.  But they know how to assess risks. They understand that mega infrastructure development across Amazonia will very likely accelerate deforestation and consequently drought and energy production unless the strictest environmental safeguards can be met.

This is NOT about foreigners telling Brazil what to do. It is about Brazil achieving security in its own commodity and energy development model. The significance of the Amazon forest is only partially about “oxygenation.” More significantly, it is about maintaining seasonal water cycles in Brazil and a livable climate in the world.

Here are some of my blog posts about water, energy and development in Brazil.

Hank, I urge you to avoid lulling your readers into a false confidence. As was the case in earlier times with sugar, coffee and rubber, Brazil maybe entering a bubble in which they can get seriously blindsided. Climate change is the unacknowledged elephant in the room.


Hi Lou—thanks for sending this important, updated information in.  I wrote my article back in September, before the events that you describe had occurred.  I appreciate you alerting us all to the situation, and I hope the Brazilians are attentive to your warning

Yes Hank, I now see the September 2010 date. I had followed a link from a much more recent post which quoted extensively from your original. Sorry about the confusion.

Yes, I hope that Brazilians are attentive. I also hope that foreigners from the longer-developed world realize that they will have to help create a global economy in which the fast-developing world is not forced to repeat the 19th and 20th Century ways that made the economically developed so wealthy. Development, like climate, is now everyone’s business and responsibility.


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