Institutions and Competition

BRICS… More Hungry For Power Than Food?

September 1, 2013

In a conference call that I attended Friday discussing second quarter performance Brazil’s finance minister Guido Mantega noted that agricultural production increased 3.9% . That’s good for Russia and the rest of the BRICS because Brazil’s food exports help feed them. Among the alliance Brazil is the only nation that can feed itself.


Russia, China, India and South Africa have food trade deficits. Among non-BRICS, Japan remains dependent as the world’s largest food importer. For its part, the United States, while a leader in conservation agriculture, became an official net importer of food in 2005.


For the BRICS, who represent 44 % of the world’s population and generate around 42% of global growth depending on what economist you like to listen to, there’s something wrong with this picture.


Why Can’t Major Economies Feed Themselves?

Much of the “food security” interdependence (some might call it “food insecurity”) one sees today is a result of large global agribusiness operations who own or lease large areas, control food crop and commodity markets, and water resources, and operate in oligopoly competition. They market and sell everything from soybeans to chickens and processed convenience foods sold in supermarkets.  All of them preach the gospel of the human capital model, which treats people as units of capital rather than as human beings.


These companies are present in all the BRICS and have access and influence all the way to the top and, institutionally, influence the policy making process involving agriculture and diet.


Just as banks make money by moving it around, agribusiness is highly profitable by moving food and commodities around. Thus it is convenient for them to promote processed foods made from their stocks in the daily diet most everywhere. Change coming from groups operating with a different identity of interests is not welcome by them.    


Farming and Agriculture Are Not Fashionable

In today’s world of dramatic internet driven media the image of agriculture-- and the green soft power and digital food diplomacy associated with it is-- in the words of New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson-- not “buzzy” enough.


Farming is less popular among younger generations than the glamour careers like software and business, and the high tech world that includes defense, nanotechnology, nuclear projects and petrochemical engineering. Because of this, and rural education issues, non-agribusiness agriculture suffers from a “brain drain.”  Among the BRICS there is a steady migration of brainpower from rural areas, away from farming, to more affluent, cosmopolitan cities.


Direct Planting Agriculture, Why Managing Change For A Sustainable Future Is A Big Challenge

Other than Brazil the BRICS have not met the challenge of adapting to modern conservation agricultural schemes that yield more with less overall expenditure, notably direct planting (sometimes called “no till agriculture”).


For more than three decades Brazil’s national agriculture foundation EMBRAPA, has fended off critics and skeptics, playing an important role in developing and testing direct planting methods and their work is paying off. Brazil now has more than 25 million hectares under direct planting cultivation, just one million less than the United States. Why can’t it can pay off for other BRICS too?


Two UN Food and Agriculture agency (FAO) charts at the bottom of this article with a link you can cut and paste into your browser offer lists of those who have adapted, and how much land in hectares globally have been transformed. The overall study that generated the charts tells you everything you want to know about conservation agriculture and direct planting (no-till).


In simplistic terms, direct planting offers important benefits over traditional tilling, planting and harvesting. Perhaps the biggest is less use of tractors and expensive harvesting machinery, and the fuel that powers them.


Over time, cost advantages achieved through direct planting applied to small and large traditional farms and plantations makes it a more profitable farming option.


It also promotes soil health because the soil is not tilled and remains moist, less subject to loss of nutrients due to run off. The general result is less use of expensive fertilizers and higher crop yields.


Direct planting promotes sustainability because it helps reduce carbon emissions that produce “greenhouse gases.”


It has proven successful in Finland, which has climate conditions similar to Russia. But Russia has not put much emphasis on direct planting due in part to the slow evolution beyond the Soviet agricultural policies that were operational prior to 1964.


Empower small farmers and their families. Help the environment. Produce more crops. Feed more people. Sounds like wish fulfillment for a few hundred not-for-profits and NGOs trying to stay funded in a crisis facing economy.


John Landers, a tropical agronomist and direct planting consultant who lives in Brazil and is a key player in Brazil’s “green revolution” notes, however, that “people and organizations have strong feelings about no-till, direct planting, whatever you want to call it. They either like it or they don’t.“


Dr. Landers has been awarded the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for his contributions to agriculture worldwide, notably for direct planting (no-till).   


In an effort to promote change the UN Food and Agriculture Organization launched EastAgri, an information exchange for companies who seek to improve their agribusiness and agriculture investment portfolios. But that does little to mitigate the influence of agribusiness on the global food setup. The World Bank has publicized its new study “Growing Green” but it will take years to determine if the recommendations are adopted and results measured other than qualitatively.


Now, as the BRICS meet on the sidelines of the G-20 discussions in St. Petersburg later this week the discussions will again turn to the proposed BRICS development bank, which is supposed to carry a fund load of $100 billion.


Ironically, being a sideshow to the “Syrian sitzkrieg” offers a reminder that the BRIC concept was first started as a marketing ploy by the former chief economist at Goldman-Sachs just days after the Al Qaeda attack on the New York World Trade Center and the Pentagon.


Nobody speculated that the BRICS (now with South Africa since 2010) would seek to become a doppelganger for the Paris-based Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).


But even without a headquarters, a leader and lacking a professionally crafted media image, that is what’s happening.   


Meanwhile, Russia has hedged its bets, announcing its intention to join the OECD in 2015, after national elections in Brazil and India.


Wouldn’t it be better for the BRICS to put that $100 billion on hold and use it to promote food security and agricultural coordination among the members?


After all, all of the BRICS economies are caught in what economists call the classic “middle income trap” that mimics affluent consumer behavior but lacks the income distribution to make workers and working families upwardly mobile enough to reach the middle class.


Albert Einstein is attributed to having said “if the facts don’t fit the theory, change the facts.”


What do the BRICS need most? New software Makeover? Rethink?  You are welcome to list your choice in the comments section below.


That’s all I have to say to everybody for now.   EWE



Extent of no-tillage adoption with > 100000 ha)

Country Area under No-tillage (ha) 2008/2009  (source: UN FAO 2009)

USA              26,500,000

Brazil           25,502,000

Argentina    19,719,000

Canada        13,481,000

Australia     17,000,000

Paraguay      2,400,000

China            1,330,000

Kazakhstan  1,200,000

Bolivia             706,000

Uruguay          655,100

Spain               650,000

South Africa  368,000

Venezuela     300,000

France           200,000

Finland          200,000

Chile              180,000

New Zealand 162,000

Colombia       102,000

Ukraine          100,000

Total 110.755.100



Continent                Area (hectares)     Percent of total

South America       49,579,000             46.8

North America      40,074,000              37.8

Australia                17,162,000              11.5

& New Zealand

Asia                           2,530,000                2.3

Europe                     1,150,000                1.1

Africa                         368,000                  0.3

World total         115,863,000



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