Brazilian scientists turning nation into an agro-power

(Juan Forero/the Washington Post "When We Started To Plant In The Cerrado, I Could Never Have Imagined We'd Be Planting Wheat,"said Paulo Kramer, Who Came To The Arid Savanna In The 1980S. "Wheat Was For Cold Climates.")
By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, October 16, 2010; 9:51 PM

CRISTALINA, BRAZIL - Barely two generations ago, the gently rolling hills here in Brazil's heartland were a knot of short, brittle trees and acidic soil considered unfit for agriculture. But on a recent morning, a New Holland harvester cut through golden husks of wheat on Paulo Kramer's farm.

Wheat, of course, is a temperate crop that flourishes in places like Kansas and South Dakota. But here in Brazil's Cerrado, a wide savannah that covers nearly a quarter of the country, wheat varieties created especially for tropical climates and nutrient-poor soil bloom alongside corn, soybeans and cotton.

Once seen as a wasteland, the Cerrado is now the motor of an agro-industry so potent that Brazil threatens to surpass the United States as breadbasket to the world. The answer to how that transformation happened can be found at a government-run agricultural research center, called Embrapa, where scientists make Brazil's poor soils fertile while developing crop varieties that will thrive here, such as wheat.

"When we started to plant in the Cerrado, I could never have imagined we'd be planting wheat," said Kramer, 50, who came here from southern Brazil in the 1980s and has 1,700 acres of farmland. "Wheat was for cold climates."

As Brazil prepares to elect a successor to President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva on Oct. 31, the Latin American giant is widely considered an economic success story among emerging markets. Some analysts say its economy may become the fifth-largest by 2016, when the Olympic Games are staged in Rio de Janeiro, and Brazil's increasingly diverse industry produces automobiles, refrigerators, fighter planes and deep-sea oil platforms.

Brazil, however, is perhaps best known as a dominant power in the exportation of foodstuffs, from meat to poultry, orange juice to coffee. Other rising giants, most notably China, cannot get enough of Brazil's soybeans and beef, its two signature exports. And poorer countries struggling to produce food, such as Venezuela and several African countries, want to emulate its success.

That has made the Brasilia headquarters of Embrapa, which stands for the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corp., an essential stop for foreign agriculture ministers and other dignitaries curious about how Brazil made the Cerrado green. In turn, under a directive from Lula, Embrapa is sending its scientists as near as Venezuela and as far as Mozambique to help improve production.

"What's happened there is the equivalent of the Green Revolution," said Andrew Colin McClung, an American whose work in the Cerrado in the late-1950s helped set the stage for Embrapa's innovations years later. "It's hard not to overemphasize their importance."

In the years since American farming went into overdrive, setting an example to be replicated worldwide, McClung and two Brazilian scientists would determine that the Cerrado could be made green by adding lime, phosphorous and other nutrients.

In 1973, whipsawed by oil shocks and facing the challenges of feeding the country's burgeoning population, the military dictatorship then ruling Brazil founded Embrapa. A collection of laboratories went up in the Cerrado, in tiny Planaltina outside of Brasilia.

Embrapa administrators knew their endeavor would not be fulfilled overnight, so they started by sending 1,200 young scientists to the best American and European universities for their master's degrees and doctorates.

By the 1980s, with hundreds of American-trained Brazilian scientists at work at Embrapa, the Cerrado began its transformation and Brazil went from exporting coffee, cacao and sugar to developing dozens of major products for export. Lured by cheap land and government credit, thousands of farmers began migrating from southern Brazil into the Cerrado, which now accounts for two-thirds of Brazil's agricultural output.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company