By Chris Clayton
DTN Ag Policy Editor
WASHINGTON (DTN) -- Brazil's political and agricultural leaders are incensed over global criticism of Amazon fires and deforestation and they are pushing back.
At a conference Wednesday in downtown Washington, D.C., Brazilian agribusiness groups sought to shift the narrative by highlighting "sustainable food" and a "science-based model" for agriculture. They also strongly criticized the view that fires in the Amazon are due to illegal expansion of ranches and crop production.
Nestor Forster Jr., Brazil's Charge of Affairs in Washington, D.C., or top diplomat, didn't mince words about Brazil's changing views about the economy and environment under President Jair Bolsonaro. Protectionism in the country "is being demolished, being destroyed." The country is undergoing an economic reform, which includes more private sector land investment to spur growth. Gross domestic product is projected at 0.9% for 2019, but the government has its sights set on 2% growth for 2020, Forster said. Forster dismissed environmental criticisms, which he said are "overplayed and exaggerated." He especially challenged what he called "environmentally militant" views in European governments. Pointing to the 80% land reserve farmers and ranchers must adhere to in the Amazon area of Brazil, Forester said, "No other country has anything close to this requirement."
In total, roughly 31% of Brazil's land mass is protected under environmental law, Forster added. Even with such protections in place, Forster pointed out grain production in Brazil is projected to grow 30% by 2030.
Forster said he expects the U.S. and Brazil to "inch closer" to a comprehensive trade deal and noted on agricultural issues the two countries "are often on the same side of the table."
Yet, the highest-ranking U.S. official at the conference was USDA Undersecretary for Trade Ted McKinney, who gave a few brief comments about trade between the two countries and the U.S. desire for fair trade deals. "People sometimes fear the size and magnitude of the U.S. agricultural machine," McKinney said, adding the U.S. is bullish, "but not Pollyannaish" about trade negotiations right now. "All we seek is fair trade."
At the same time, Bolsonaro on Wednesday was hosting Chinese President Xi Jinping in Brasilia, seeking to address some accusations Bolsonaro had made early in the year that China was "buying Brazil." While President Donald Trump is trying to line up a meeting with Xi, Bolsonaro has met with Xi twice in the last month. Brazil is hosting the "BRICS" Summit, (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and each looking to increase trade with each other. "China is becoming more and more part of Brazil's future," the South China Post quoted Bolsonaro saying when he met with Xi.
In Washington there was a repeated theme that U.S. and Brazilian farmers were not necessarily in competition with each other, but two western breadbaskets walking in lockstep. Tom Hertel, an agricultural economics professor at Purdue, challenged that argument, noting the U.S. and Brazil are producing many of the same commodities and selling to the same countries.
"As a corn farmer in the Midwest, I'd be thinking closely about that," Hertel said.
The pushback against perceptions the Brazilian government is ignoring Amazon protections is critical for Brazil because agriculture accounts for 25% of the country's GDP and more than 40% of its exports. Agriculture makes Brazil relevant on the global stage, said Marcos Fava Neves, an agricultural professor at the University of Sao Paulo. "Agribusiness is how Brazil inserts itself into the world," Neves said.
Neves also criticized the narrative of his country regarding last summer's fires. He and others sought to highlight land laws in Brazil that require forestry and savannah set-asides. Neves pointed to criticisms from European leaders, media and celebrities over the fires.
"What you saw was wrong in July and August," he said. "We have seen a fever all over the world that damaged a lot of Brazilian image and people did not come back to say 'I'm sorry for what I've done, and that's not true.' ... It was a huge attack."
The Amazon forest canopy, which is nearly size of Europe, had more than 70,000 recorded fires over the summer months, the highest in more than a decade. Critics complain Bolsonaro's administration has greenlighted intentional fires with a willingness to ignore environmental degradation. Supporters claim the dry season in Brazil was more intense this year, which led to a higher volume of fires.
Brazilians at the conference noted how the country went from being a food-aid recipient in the 1960s to becoming an agricultural powerhouse through a long-term investment in agricultural research. The country sent hundreds of students abroad to earn doctorates in areas such as agronomy and created ties to universities such as Purdue University, which co-hosted Wednesday's event. Brazil also created its own research arm for agriculture, Embrapa, the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation. Geraldo Martha, a researcher at Embrapa, said Brazil's investment in agricultural research has actually spared increased land use as farmers and the commodity industry have focused on intensification and productivity gains in both crops and livestock. Martha said, Brazil's production growth has limited acreage expansion globally by hundreds of millions of acres.
"Because of productivity gains in Brazil, we almost have spared another Brazil," Martha said. "That was only possible because of the science-based approach Brazil has been on."
Yet, like the U.S., government investment in agricultural research is now declining in Brazil. Martha and others said such a shift is needed for Brazil to get its federal budget deficit under control. Speakers reiterated several times that focus on research investment.
Pointing to government subsidies in Europe, the U.S. and some Asian countries, Martha also said Brazilian farmers are more likely to respond to market forces because Brazil has little to no government safety net for farmers.
Getting to climate change and the Amazon rainforest's role in removing carbon from the air, concerns were raised by non-Brazilians about the risks. "That's where no one is really fully prepared for what climate change brings," said Claudia Ringler, deputy director for environment and production technology programs at the International Food Policy Research Institute. "The Amazon is a big fuel source and we have to do a lot more thinking about how we can manage our reserves and forest resources."
Martha responded that farmers in the Amazon set aside their ground without any compensation. "The farmers are preserving 80% of their farms in the Amazon without any payment or incentive for it," Martha said.
In other parts of Brazil, such as Mato Grosso, farmers must place anywhere from 10% to 30% of their farms into reserves. At the same time, farmers are using no-till production systems on 11 million hectares (27 million acres). All of these efforts capture carbon in the soil without payments for those environmental services, Martha said.
"At the same time we are mitigating the carbon, we are also building the system's resilience because we have more soil dense matter that is able to capture more water and more nutrients," Martha said. "So actually we are doing a lot of investment in these low-carbon initiatives in Brazilian agriculture."
Neves said agriculture makes Brazil "a green country." Looking at the energy metrics of Brazil, the country right now gets 45% of its energy from renewable energy, which includes major investments in areas such as hydrological power from its rivers. Neves also pointed to the U.S. and Brazil both having strong biofuel industries and looking to expand ethanol exports, especially to China, which is implementing a 10% ethanol blend law.
"This is totally a win-win for Brazil and the U.S.," Neves said. "We are capturing money away from oil and bringing to agriculture."
Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com
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