EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Outgrowing the Earth: The Food Security Challenge in an Age of Falling Water Tables and Rising Temperatures

Chapter 9. The Brazilian Dilemma: Introduction

We may be facing a seismic shift in the geography of world food trade as China emerges as a massive food importer and Brazil becomes a leading food exporter. While China is losing cropland rapidly, Brazil is gaining it at a record rate, setting the stage for a fast-expanding agricultural link between the two countries.

Over the last few decades, the dominant bilateral food-trade link was between the United States, the leading exporter of grain, soybeans, and meat, and Japan, the top importer of these commodities. Signs that the Brazil-China link could eclipse the U.S.-Japan link are already in evidence with soybeans. China is now the world leader, importing some 22 million tons in 2004—more than four times Japan’s soy imports of 5 million tons. Meanwhile, Brazil replaced the United States as top exporter, shipping 44 million tons of soybeans, including soybean meal and oil, to other countries in 2004 compared with 33 million tons from the United States. 1

In 2004, China also displaced Japan as the world’s number one wheat importer. It may soon do the same for feedgrains. If Brazil can accelerate the growth in its grain harvest to match that of soybeans over the last decade, it will have a large exportable surplus of grain to help cover the expanding needs of importing countries such as China. However, it will be exceedingly difficult for Brazil to duplicate the soybean expansion for both economic and ecological reasons. 2

There are also signs that China may move ahead of Japan as an importer of meat in the not-too-distant future. In some recent years, China has imported more poultry than Japan has. With imports of pork rising, China may overtake Japan here as well. With beef, however, Japan’s imports lead the world, while China’s are still negligible. On the export side, Brazil’s fast-growing exports of pork, poultry, and beef are in the process of overtaking those of the United States. Barring some unexpected event, Brazil soon will be the world leader. 3

The pressures to push back the agricultural frontier in Brazil will be intense in the next few decades, since this is the only country with a vast land area that potentially can be cropped. Economic forces and political pressures for Brazil to expand its cultivated area are strong and growing stronger. The world urgently needs more grain and high-quality protein. Projections indicate that nearly 3 billion people will be added to world population by 2050, some 5 billion people in developing countries want to move up the food chain, 840 million people are still chronically hungry and malnourished, and the backlog of technology to raise land productivity is shrinking. Throughout the late twentieth century, additional demand for food from population growth translated into efforts to raise land productivity, but now as that becomes more difficult, continuing population growth is generating pressure to expand the cultivated area. 4

This pressure to clear more land means the worst fears of environmentalists may be realized. The prospect of losing so much of the earth’s remaining biological diversity is scary, to say the least. In our increasingly integrated world, the fate of both Brazil’s Amazon basin and the cerrado—a savannah-like region the size of Europe on the basin’s southern edge—can no longer be separated from the family planning decisions of hundreds of millions of couples outside of Brazil and the aspirations for a better diet of billions more.

Can Brazil dramatically expand its cropland area and avoid the ecological catastrophe that followed on the heels of the last major cropland expansion initiative, the Soviet Virgin Lands Project in the 1950s? Can Brazilian agriculture expand in a way that will respond to growing world food needs and at the same time protect the rich diversity of life in the Amazonian rainforest and the cerrado? 5

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1. U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Production, Supply, and Distribution, electronic database, at www.fas.usda.gov/psd, updated 13 August 2004.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid., updated March 2004.

4. U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2002 (Rome 2002); United Nations, World Population Prospects: The 2002 Revision (New York: February 2003).

5. FAO, The State of Food and Agriculture 1995 (Rome: 1995), p. 175.


Copyright © 2004 Earth Policy Institute