Saturday, 28 August 2010

Agricultural R&D in Brazil

Today’s issue of The Economist has an amazing article on Brazilian agriculture: The miracle of the cerrado: Brazil has revolutionised its own farms. Can it do the same for others? [‘cerrado’ = savannah]; there's an Editorial here and you can listen to an audio version of the article here. Basically it’s the story of Brazil’s recent agricultural development:

The increase in Brazil’s farm production has been stunning. Between 1996 and 2006 the total value of the country’s crops rose from 23 billion reais ($13 billion) to 108 billion reais, or 365%. Brazil increased its beef exports tenfold in a decade, overtaking Australia as the world’s largest exporter. It has the world’s largest cattle herd after India’s. It is also the world’s largest exporter of poultry, sugar cane and ethanol. Since 1990 its soyabean output has risen from barely 15m tonnes to over 60m. Brazil accounts for about a third of world soyabean exports, second only to America. In 1994 Brazil’s soyabean exports were one-seventh of America’s; now they are six-sevenths. Moreover, Brazil supplies a quarter of the world’s soyabean trade on just 6% of the country’s arable land. No less astonishingly, Brazil has done all this without much government subsidy.

And it did all this on land that had been considered wholly unsuitable for arable farming. Big is good, too:

… half the country’s 5m farms earn less than 10,000 reais a year and produce just 7% of total farm output; 1.6m are large commercial operations which produce 76% of output. Not all family farms are a drain on the economy: much of the poultry production is concentrated among them and they mop up a lot of rural underemployment. But the large farms are vastly more productive.

The article describes how this transformation, this ‘miracle’, was achieved. Much of the detail is agricultural (but still very interesting), but the real point is that, because Brazil wanted to modernise and expand its agriculture, and so increase employment, farm profits and exports, it was done.

►There’s a lesson here for water supplies, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) in developing countries, and the argument should go something like this:

Do you, as the government of your country, genuinely want socio-economic development in both your rural and urban areas? [No government is going to say ‘No’.] So you need a healthy productive labour force. To make sure your labour force is healthy and productive you need to facilitate good WASH for all your citizens. There are several other things you need to do as well, of course [good primary health care, good schools (and good schools have separate sanitation facilities for girls and boys), good technical training, good extension workers, etc., etc.] − but, if you don’t do good WASH, then the return on your investments in these other areas is very likely to be suboptimal (especially if your schools don’t have good sanitation).

Remember: poor WASH leads to repeated diarrhoea and polyparasitism in very young children; this leads to impaired cognition in these children when they’re at school; and this in turn leads to low productivity in adult life – precisely the opposite of what you need for socio-economic development.

You can’t say you can’t afford to invest in WASH for all your citizens (any development bank will gladly lend you the money for a well-designed WASH programme). Rather it’s a question of whether you can afford not to invest in WASH for all your citizens. If you can’t be bothered (and many of you seem to be like this), then on your head be it – although, of course, it won’t be your head, but the heads of your rural and urban poor. So, do everyone a favour (everyone of your rural and urban poor, that is): get real, and think BIG.