The ‘Cerrado’ is Brazils’ Savannah (open grasslands with shrubs and trees) formerly ignored as wasteland, but now the focus of massive reclamation.
We said last Sunday that today we’d be looking at Brazil’s agricultural business, and you may well ask what this has to do with the KenyaForum? The link is via last weeks article on BioFuels where we questioned the sense in growing crops for fuel in a country which doesn’t grow enough food to feed itself. Well we looked around for examples of countries were it does make sense, and Brazil seemed the obvious answer. Where it makes sense is when a country already grows more than enough for its own need and exports the surplus, particularly when that country is still rapidly expanding its agri-business.
Nearly 40 years ago Brazil was under the rule a military government, led by generals, and a relatively poor country, with net imports of food. The quadrupling of oil prices in the early 70’s had put severe financial pressure on Brazil’s agricultural subsidies which had been necessary to sustain the farmers, so in an unusually far sighted move Brazil set up a public company ‘Embrapa’.
(Empresa Brasileira de Pesquisa Agropecuária, or the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation) Embrapa was tasked with and succeeded in turning around Brazil’s farming industry, with the application of science to agriculture. The “Miracle of the Cerrado” was no miracle, it was a long process of analysing the problems with the cerrado and then applying a four step answer, involving industrial quantities of lime to neutralize the acidic soil, planting nitrogen fixing tubers to enhance the nutrients, and cross breeding plants which could thrive in the hostile enviroment. It, worked and as Silvio Crestana, a former head of Embrapa, proudly said “We changed the paradigm.”
Fast forwards 40 years and 70% of Brazilian farmland is now found in the former wastelands of the cerrado. Brazil is a net exporter of food and the worlds biggest bio-ethanol producer, and deservedly now the ‘B’ in ‘BRIC’ (Brazil Russia India and China) the new, emerging “Tiger” economies.
So what has this to do with Kenya? Well Kenya’s economy is largely based on farming and over 75% of Kenyan earn their living off the land, and yet only 7-8% of Kenya’s land mass is categorised as ‘first class’ arable land with 15% classed as fertile. It doesn’t take a great leap of the imagination to see that if Kenya were to convert its known fertile land entirely to first class prime farming land then we could, potentially, nearly double our output. This still leaves 85% of the landmass, some of which may be suitable for further ‘Embrapa’-style treatment.
These sorts of changes don’t happen over night, and indeed Embrapa see the process of converting their cerrado as a painstaking 30 year evolution, involving the pro-active integration of farming and science and technology. But if one country can do it so can another, at least in theory. Indeed Kenya has taken its first steps, in Sept 2011, President Kibaki announced a fund of Ksh97b to be made available for irrigation schemes and general food security. Water shortages or more correctly ‘not having the water in the right place at the right time’ have always beset Kenyan farming. Irrigation schemes have been known about since 6000BCE in ancient Persia, and its unlikely that in any organic system that one answer will solve all the problems but without a doubt the development of these water schemes will be a huge help along the line. Brazil didn’t have the same water supply problems but it did have acidic, nutrient poor soil, they solved their problems, and have become the worlds fastest growing food producer. Can Kenya do the same? Can Kenya have its own Embrapa to drive the growth? Its a nice thought, but alas we fear its not to be. Whilst looking for evidence of a Kenya-Brazil agricultural alliance (after all trade between the two counties increased six fold during 2002-9) all we could find was this quote from President Kibaki.
“Kenya is especially keen on exploiting Brazilian advances in the area of bio-diesel technology. Brazil is a world leader in this field and Kenya stands to gain as we seek ways of becoming more efficient in our management of the energy sector.”
…yes you guessed correctly ..its a trade agreement with Brazil to grow and develop biofuels……
We had rather hoped to end this article with “Could Kenya become the ‘K’ in BRIC “(brick…geddit?!) ….but we think its more likely that we’re all becoming BioFools.[sic]