The agro-industrialist argument

Many in Brazil’s entrepreneurial agribusiness elite rely on the same political narrative when defending their commodities export business model: they say they’re bringing growth, prosperity and food to the Brazilian nation, and the world.

The population is growing, they say, and Brazil needs to feed the people!

In Balsas, the agribusiness heartland of Maranhao state, I chatted with Daniel Groli, a sojeiro, or soy farmer, and member of a well-known agricultural family.

The Grolis moved there from Brazil’s south in the ‘90s as part of what Daniel described as a “positive invasion, which today is spectacular.” When I raised concerns over the environmental impacts of large-scale monoculture on Brazil’s Cerrado savanna biome, he rebutted:

“The United States and Europe didn’t worry themselves about deforestation hundreds of years ago, they deforested to sustain their people and tackle hunger… Today, the ports are overflowing with soy, the trains are overflowing with soy, farms are overflowing with soy, and do you know what that means? It means they are filled with food… The better and bigger agroindustry is, the more food there will be in the world.”

Agribusiness entrepreneur Daniel Groli points to an aerial photo showing his large soy plantations. The Groli family moved from the south of Brazil to Maranhao as part of a major migration of agricultural entrepreneurs in the 1970s and 1980s during and after Brazil’s military dictatorship. Image by Thomas Bauer / Mongabay.

José Antonio Gorgen, a wealthy Maranhao agribusiness entrepreneur concurred. Zezao, as he is nicknamed, exclaimed: “There are cities [around the globe] with millions of people; they have breakfast, lunch, dinner, every day! Have you thought what would happen, the bedlam, if we ran out of food? We’d kill each other to eat.”

On the surface, the argument is compelling. With the world population currently at 7.6 billion – soaring to 9.8 billion by 2050, and 11.2 billion by 2100 – according to UN estimates, Brazilian commodities currently serve, and will continue to play, a major role in support of global food security.

And what is good for the world, is good for the regional economy: “Agroindustry is the economic matrix that brings development to the municipality of Balsas,” declared Daniel Groli.

And he’s not alone in this shining assessment. Many, including newly elected President Jair Bolsonaro, point to large-scale agribusiness producers as the salvation of the Brazilian economy, particularly in the past two years as the nation has climbed out of a serious economic recession. The agriculture industry contributed 23.5 percent to GDP in 2017, its highest contribution in 13 years.

However, this argument also clearly serves the landed and moneyed agribusiness elites who possess the financial and political power to shape Brazil’s national narrative and physical landscape. An alliance of large-scale producers with transnational commodities companies, along with the careful cultivation of the bancada ruralista agribusiness lobby in Congress, and in state government, has given agroindustry entrepreneurs extraordinary clout.

A deeper look at agricultural statistics raises questions about whether the interests of industrial agribusiness are always aligned with the best interests of the Brazilian people, and whether improved federal support for family farms might not equally serve international and national food security and Brazilian economic goals.

Agroindustry vs. family farms – unpacking the numbers

In Brazil, family farms stand in direct contrast to, and often in conflict with, agribusiness. Family-owned and operated farms in Brazil run the gamut, with some being large-scale, serving urban and rural markets; while many others are small-scale, land-poor operations, characterized by subsistence and non-market activities.

Unlike the industrial agribusiness model – where monoculture and high profit dominate – family farming in Brazil is characterised by polycultures, several different crops planted side-by-side, with each farm typically integrated into its community. “The family and the farm are linked, co-evolve and combine economic, environmental, social and cultural functions,” writes the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation.

There are 4.4 million family farms in Brazil, making up 85 percent of all agricultural establishments in the country. Though statistics vary somewhat, the family farm sector makes a significant contribution to Brazil’s national food security, producing an estimated 70 percent of the food that is consumed in the nation. However, these family farms accomplish this feat utilizing less than 25 percent of Brazil’s agricultural land.

In comparison, highly capitalized, export-oriented, large-scale commodity growers hold the lion’s share of arable and grazable land. Brazilian agro-industrialists own around 800,000 farms which occupy 75.7 percent of the nation’s agricultural land, with 62 percent of total agricultural output. Further defining the inequity, the top 1.5 percent of rural landowners occupy 53 percent of all agricultural land.

A sharp contrast also shows up as to what is grown: soy, corn, coffee, sugar, beef, pork and chicken are at the heart of Brazil’s industrial agribusiness supply chains. Over half of the soy, coffee and sugar produced in Brazil is exported to Europe, China and the U.S. along with other nations.

On the other hand, anyone who’s spent much time in Brazil, will be well acquainted with black beans, rice and farofa (made from cassava) – most of what Brazilians eat every day. Family farming produces 87 percent of cassava, 70 percent of beans, 34 percent of rice, and 21 percent of wheat consumed in Brazil. It also accounts for 60 percent of milk, 59 percent of cow herds and 50 percent of poultry. It’s worth wondering what would happen environmentally, and to global food security, if Brazil’s diet of cassava and beans could be introduced to the developed world.

While farmers like Daniel Groli and Zezao attribute Brazil’s astronomical agricultural growth to large-scale export-oriented agroindustry – such as their own – family farming has also played a significant, though unsung role, in what has been called Brazil’s “Agricultural Miracle.”

Family farms in Brazil make up more than 80 percent of agricultural production units responsible for 38 percent of the gross value of agricultural production, according to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE).

As importantly, family farms create jobs, while industrial agribusiness is highly mechanized and job-poor. Seventy percent of the nation’s rural workforce is employed in family farming. One academic study found that the sector accounted for 10 percent of GDP between 1995 and 2005.

Bias in government support

Brazilian agricultural policy has long had two distinct, competing, but not always equal foci: agroindustry and family farming. In the 1970s and 80s, for example, Brazil’s military government came under heavy fire from academics for what was dubbed “conservative modernization,” a process that favored large-scale agribusiness, but excluded small-scale farmers.

After re-democratization in 1985, there was a concerted effort by the government to develop more family farm-friendly government policies. In the ‘90s, President Fernando Henrique Cardoso introduced lower interest rates and a special program, PRONAF, to promote family agriculture. Government awareness that the Ministry of Agriculture had not historically provided favorable economic conditions for family farms led to the creation of the Ministry of Agrarian Development, whose sole aim was to promote family farms.

In the 2000s, the bolstering of family farming was consolidated under the Lula and Dilma administrations, which provided greater resources to the sector and new programs, such as the Food Acquisition Program, by which the government bought family farm products for use by public institutions such as hospitals and schools.

2016 saw a marked shift away from family farm-friendly policies and toward agribusiness. President Michel Temer abolished the Ministry of Agrarian Development and made the body into a special secretariat, linked to the Civil House ministry which is largely dominated by agribusiness ruralists.

“This has diminished the status and importance of family farming,” explained Antoninho Rovaris of the National Confederation of Farm Workers and Family Farmers (Contag). “The ruralist group in Congress says it’s defending everyone, but we do not feel represented.”

There is also a major funding inequity. In 2017, the Brazilian Ministry of Agriculture announced a R$30 billion (US$8 Billion) investment in family farming by 2020, as part of its Family Agriculture Safra Plan; that’s R$7.5 billion (US$2 Billion) annually. This sounds significant, except that in the same year R$190 billion (US$49 billion) was released to support large-scale farmers. Simply put, the government invested 6 times more public funds in industrial agribusiness than it did in family farming.

Graeub at al summarized Brazil’s agricultural policy situation in a 2016 article, The State of Family Farms in the World:

Given the large number of family farmers, higher per-hectare job production, and greater share of responsibility for the production of domestically consumed staple foods, the amount of support provided to them is insufficient. The greater resources (and clout) of the agribusiness sector of course reflects, at least in part, the benefits the export sector brings to the country. But the empirical evidence at least opens the possibility that this lopsided focus does not reflect the most efficient path to supporting food security and productivity within Brazil.

The Ministry of Agriculture did not respond to a request for comment.

Unequal application of the law

While in Tocantins, I visited the Gleba Tauá community, settled over the past half century by people who laid claim to “Union Land” – property belonging to the government that can be legally occupied and homesteaded by any Brazilian.

For the past three years, the National Institute of Colonization and Agrarian Reform (INCRA) has tried unsuccessfully to get Gleba Tauá approved as a deeded settlement – owned in perpetuity by the family farmers living there.

However, that effort met with strong opposition. In 2015, an agribusiness entrepreneur named Emilio Binotto tried to get all the already established family farmers expelled via a judicial order. Since making his way up to Tocantins from the southern state of Santa Catarina in the 1990s, he has laid claim to several parcels of Union Land, and distributed them among his friends and family.

The judge granted Binotto the decree he asked for in 2016, but the brutality of police in their attempts to enforce the ruling and eject the rightful homesteaders caused so much uproar that further legal action was suspended indefinitely.

The community has since existed in a perpetual state of apprehension, awaiting Binotto’s next move. In July 2018, several settlement homes were chain sawed down by armed men, and the attack was filmed by residents and reported in the national press.  The Military and Civil Police were dispatched to the community, but no one was arrested and there is no evidence that the incident is being investigated further.

Cleodivan Torres Coimbra moved to Gleba Tauá eight years ago when he heard about the fertile land available in the burgeoning community. He constructed a large home, planted a prolific fruit and vegetable garden, and raised chickens and pigs. Retaining his parcel of land however, has been an ongoing struggle.

“From the day my wife and I moved here, it’s been endless persecution,” he said. “The police came to say we’re not allowed to plant melon trees, but when he [Binotto] tears down trees to plant crops, it’s completely fine. Whenever we plant anything, they bring the police to say we’re destroying the forest.”

Cleodivan Torres Coimbra moved to Gleba Tauá eight years ago. Retaining his parcel of land however, has been a struggle, as an agribusiness entrepreneur puts pressure on settlers to abandon their homesteads. Image by Thomas Bauer / Mongabay.

As the public defender representing the community in legal proceedings put it: “Economic power allows Binotto and his lawyer to perform these atrocities. The law is the same for big or small farmers, but the application is different.” The bias of local officials, area law enforcement and courts against family farmers, and in favor of large-scale agribusiness is a common story throughout rural Brazil.

Emilio Binotto could not be reached by Mongabay for comment.

The unsustainable agribusiness model

Analysts say that the globalized agribusiness marketplace has helped create a severely unlevel playing field: the promise of exorbitant corporate profits from commodity exports has proved very tantalizing to large-scale growers, while government institutions continue to serve well-connected, privileged agroindustry entrepreneurs over the small-scale rural farm owners and their workforce.

Zezao asked me mockingly: “You think the right way to live is like the indigenous, in the forest, living for subsistence of the land? Can you imagine an aldeia [indigenous community] with 200,000 people?” The assumption is that the world’s people would starve without industrial agribusiness, and that family farm methods could not be upscaled to feed the planet.

However, Zezao’s view fails to consider the devastating environmental impacts of most monoculture plantations – the deforestation of rainforest and savanna, emptying of aquifers, pesticide pollution and poisoning, unemployment, and population displacement. Downsizing Brazilian agriculture and heavily supporting the family farm model has a strong appeal to many conservationists, but such an approach has not been tried.

Looming over the entire agriculture debate is climate change. Scientists have raised the alarm: continuing down a path of largely unregulated deforestation and booming large-scale agribusiness threatens deepening drought and climate chaos – a potential disaster for industrial agribusiness, as well as family farms and for the millions of people that rely on both for food. To many experts, it is becoming increasingly clear that small-scale polyculture family farming is not part of the world hunger or climate change problem, but central to its solution.

Mongabay contributor Anna Sophie Gross was accompanied on her trip by Thomas Bauer, a photographer and filmmaker who has been documenting and supporting communities in the Cerrado and Amazon for over 20 years. He produced nearly all of the photos and videos for this series.

Featured image caption: Alzira cooks a lunch of chicken, black beans, rice, cassava and vegetables. for her extended family. She and her husband live on a family farm in Serra do Centro, in the Campos Lindos area of Tocantins state, Brazil. Image by Thomas Bauer / Mongabay.

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