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Interview: Challenges for Brazilian farmers
(PORTO ALEGRE, Brazil) Agriculture.com--Kátia Abreu once was listed among the top 100 most influential people in Brazil. She is an independent senator from the state of Tocantins and president of the Federation of Agriculture and Livestock of Brazil, a counterpart of the National Farmers Union. Being recognized as the rural voice of the country, Abreu joined many fights in order to defend less aggressive regulations that would curb the Brazilian agricultural production. The height of these frictions was when the new Foresting Code was discussed in Brazil. In a UN Conference about climate change in Cancún, Mexico, Greenpeace even delivered a chainsaw to Abreu in an unkind protest.
In an exclusive interview to Agriculture, she chatted about the challenges of Brazilian agriculture. The senator thinks the main challenges to agricultural production in the country are not logistics nor caterpillars, but the next election. Abreu believes that if former Natural Environmental minister Marinal Silva is elected vice president, Brazilian farmers would be hurt by aggressive environmental regulations pushed by international NGOs.
Agriculture.com - Do you think the logistics chaos will repeat again in 2014 with lines in the main ports by April? Do you think logistics will continue to be the main challenge of Brazilian agriculture?
Kátia Abreu - I'm more optimistic about this situation. The first aspect is the corn production. We will not have the same level of corn exports in the same period. Another factor is anticipated commercialization. Last year, 85% of the sales were made in advance. This year, we did not sell 30% of our corn until December. And a third thing is the government program directed to build warehouses. Payment deadlines are extended and interest rates are compatible with producers' capability. More warehouses will be available in the farms and to other chain players.
Agriculture.com - Helicoverpa Armigera (known as the corn earworm in the U.S.) has been a major concern in many states of Brazil. In some areas, soybean losses are estimated at 10% just because of that caterpillar. How are farmers and the sector in general fighting the problem?
Abreu - I have worked hard in order to approve the usage of biotech production at Anvisa (Brazil's National Agency of Sanitary Surveillance). There is a huge bureaucracy that does not release the most effective pesticides. I've put huge pressure on Anvisa to release those pesticides that effectively will resolve the problem.
Agriculture.com - In 2013, the U.S. exported a record amount of wheat to Brazil because of shortages generated by Argentina in the Mercorsur trade bloc (which includes Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, and most recently, Venezuela and Bolivia). The extension of the exemption of external tariff benefitting U.S. farmers has made some Brazilians complain about the changes. Mills, on the other hand, want more U.S. wheat in the market. In the meantime, local federations say that Brazil could triple wheat production from one season to another if rules are not changed within the year. In your opinion, what is the solution?
Abreu - In the past, Brazil was already self-sufficient (on wheat). There is a perspective of a lack of the grain again in 2014. The government will be launching soon a new program to tackle that problem. They heard us. We need an improved policy. I suggested agricultural insurance with 80% and mechanisms of commercialization. I think Carlos Sperotto, president of the Federation of Agriculture of Rio Grande do Sul, is right when he says that quickly the sector can increase the production. There is still the issue of the quality of our seeds. There is just more specialized planting in Paraná and Rio Grande do Sul.
Agriculture.com - Brazilian farmers have made a lot of investments throughout 2013. A new record of machinery sales was set with 65,200 units of tractors and 8,545 harvesters sold in the year. With crop markets falling into a different price zone, are Brazilian farmers financially stable enough to withstand the pressure of lower markets?
Abreu - Of course the lower market represents a significant loss for everybody, but we have good estimates. Most of the investments are being made with the capital of farmers, and the international prices are still competitive. Plus, we've reached an agreement to sell most of our stocks. A market of 10 million tons was open for annual sales.
Agriculture.com- I don't know the original source of that information, but there have been talks about a possible copy in Brazil of the taxation of grain exports of Argentina. The retentions of grain exports in that country are up to 35%. Do you think this policy might be applied if current president Dilma Roussef is reelected in 2014?
Abreu - I don't think there is a possibility that this would happen. It would bring total chaos to Brazilian agriculture. I've met several times with president Dilma, and I don't think she would take that out of the scope initiative. I did not have the impression that she wants to transform Brazilian agriculture into chaos.
Agriculture.com - Marina Silva, Brazil's former minister of Natural Environment under former president Lula, might run for vice president of the country in this year's election with Eduardo Campos as running mate. You said previously that if her bloc is elected, that would be "catastrophic" to Brazilian agriculture. Why?
Abreu - We've had a period of terror with regard to environmental issues. Farmers were transformed in rivers of CO2, the polluters. I totally attribute to her the leadership of that process. She had zero complacency with rural producers. We no longer import agricultural products. We've made a green revolution in the world. We've tripled the productivity without increasing deforestation. In the meantime, she transformed the Environment Ministry into an NGO. She was there to defend international NGOs. As minister, Marina Silva had never received me or my proposals for environmental projects. We just want for our opinions to be heard and respected. During the discussion of the Foresting Code in Congress, after she left office, finally we took out the monopoly of NGOs, after 15 years, in the environmental discussion.
Luis Vieira is a freelance writer for Successful Farming/Agriculture.com.