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U.S. factor sparked Brazil soybean revolution

10/28/2013 @ 4:01pm

Luís Fernando Cirne Lima took office as a minister of Agriculture of Brazil in 1969 during military rule. At the time, Brazil was not within the 20 largest economies in the world and coffee accounted for nearly half of the total exports of the country. The South American country also did not produce over a million tons of soybeans. As of today, Brazil is the top producer of soybeans in the world, a major player of corn production, and the seventh largest GDP.

In an exclusive interview to Agriculture.com from one of his offices in Porto Alegre, the former minister explained the main initiatives that made the Brazilian cerrado a major agricultural area and how it helped soybeans to be as significant as it is for today's economy. He also explained some US factors that helped Brazil to expand towards the west and his view on the Amazon rainforest issues. Currently, Cirne Lima is 80 years old. He farms on the flat lands of Dom Pedrito, Rio Grande do Sul, is a council member of SLC Agrícola, a major grain company producer in Brazil, and Camera, the largest grain trader in Rio Grande do Sul.

Agriculture.com - Which was the panorama of Brazilian agriculture when you took over as minister of Agriculture in 1969?

Cirne Lima - Brazil was an imminent agricultural country with rural population. Agriculture was mostly happening in the Northeast and southeast parts of the country. Coffee had then a disproportional share of the exports. It accounted for half of a total of US$ 2 billion of Brazilian exports. The other significant crops were sugar, cotton, and cocoa, which had some limitations in the period. We still did not have policies pushing for more supply of alcohol and cocoa was concentrated in the southeast of (the state of) Bahia. 

The result was that unfortunately we lost relative and absolute production of cocoa, and a relative loss of coffee production. In the other goals, we were successful.  

Agriculture.com - What did you have in mind to revolutionize Brazilian agriculture in long-term purposes?

Cirne Lima - In the end of 1969, I had traveled a lot throughout the country. Between 1971 and 1972, I had established two pillars. To maintain the production of the crops that we were already strong and to grow a lot more grains and other crops. We decided to start with the oilseed, which later became a top exporting commodity. At the time, we already produced corn, but the productivity was very low. Rice and corn were other grains that we wanted to boost. I saw that the perspective was huge for grains. We wanted to grow the cattle herd, which also had a big potential for exports. And finally, we started to think about fruit, mainly orange juice. The high technology applied in the state of São Paulo made it become huge. Foresting was starting to become a huge as Brazil consumed a lot of woods. Soybeans were the thing with the major perspective. We started to visualize an agricultural expansion with a growing meat industry and aviculture.

Agriculture.com - Could you explain the importance of Brazil's Agricultural Research Company (Embrapa) in this scenario and the distribution of fields in the center-western part of the country?

Cirne Lima - To think about an expansion of the Brazilian agriculture we had to think about an expansion of area towards to the countryside. At the time there was a big discussion within the regime and in the society over more investments to the coast or to the west of the country. Since the 19th century there was the discussion of the development of the coastal Brazil and the "continental Brazil". Most academic institutions in 1970's, such as the Getúlio Vargas Foundation, have still defended more investments in the coast. Then, there already was investments towards the west such as hydropowers in Minas Gerais and the construction of Brasília during the Juscelino Kubicheck government. I always had thought that we were supposed to occupy more of the west. And there was the cerrado (the Brazilian savannah, mostly the fields of Mato Grosso, Goia´s and Mato Grosso do Sul) that was not used for anything. The first step which was taken was that we needed to develop a technology to grow crops in the cerrado to significantly expand the agricultural area. We created Embrapa in order to do it.

There was also an international factor that helped us to win the battle over more investments in the west. Herman Kahn, a person from the Hudson Institute, based in New York, was defending some sort of internationalization of the Amazon rainforest because he believed other countries should be involved on preserving it. Military and diplomat officials reacted strongly to the issue and it contributed for a slow idle westward. Much later, in the 1990's, more agricultural frontiers started in the south of Piauí, west of Bahia, and south of Maranhão with also a basis on soybeans, but also cotton and corn.

Agriculture.com - Logistics will continue to be one of the main challenges of the Brazilian agriculture?

Cirne Lima - Evidently will continue to be. It is still a aberration that we ship soybeans from Mato Grosso through the ports of Santos, Paranaguá, or even Rio Grande. Some private solutions are being set. For instance, the largest soybean group in the world, the Maggi, has been transporting the soybean by truck from Rodonópolis (Mato Grosso) to Porto Velho (Rondonia) and ship through the river Madeira near Manaus (Amazonas), from there it goes to the ocean. It is still very absurd to truck it over 300 miles. That's what happens in the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul where the soybeans are transporting from Santa Rosa, Ijuí, Erechim or Passo Fundo to the Rio Grande port . The public sector has not provided the infrastructure and the sector will struggle for a while.

Agriculture.com - What's your opinion about the us of land in the Amazon forest and how can we avoid deforestation still growing agricultural production?

Cirne Lima - Brazil has a great senator called Kátia Abreu who defends seriously agriculture and also zero deforestation. We do not need to focus on the Amazon forest to grow more of our agricultural production. There is no need of deforestation. Brazil still has 172.9 million acres to increase on crops without using the rainforest. There is also 425.02 million acres available for grazing. From this standpoint, I'm a real conservationist.

Agriculture.com - Do you think the recent problems of the US/Brazil relations over NSA spy will have some consequences to agriculture?

Cirne Lima - I do not really think that will bring problems to agriculture. The current government of the Workers Party used to call the economic policy of the previous government as a right-wing policy, but it inherited the monetary policies that stabilized the economy. The foreign policy, however, has been very poor. It is very anti-american and leftist. It has helped the regimes of Chávez, Morales, and Kirchner and other absurdities.  I think that would be overcame. Brazil and the United States have a long-term committment with the Atlantic. These problems are punctual. The Brazilian government wants to satisfy the domestic and the foreign left. 

Agriculture.com - What exporting countries such as Brazil/US should do to have a better relation with bargaining countries like China and Russia?

Cirne Lima - I would say that diplomats would have to work on having better bilateral agreements.

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Luis Vieira is a freelance writer located in Porto Alegre, Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil.