Thanks to the soybean, Brazilian agriculture has seen exponential growth in recent years. At the same time, the country’s agrarian sector is transforming into one of the most sustainable in the world.
It began during the reign of the King of Football, the era of the famous Pelé. From 1958 to 1970 he led his national team to three World Cup victories and established Brazil among the most successful football nations in the world. The founding of the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (EMBRAPA) in the early 1970’s had a similar effect – not on Brazilian football, but on its agriculture. It set the stage for developments that have turned the South American nation into the breadbasket of the world. Today, few other countries can match Brazil’s expertise in this sector. Through modern technologies and methods, Brazilian farmers have increased production by over 250 percent in the last 20 years alone – just in soy. At the same time, the country’s tropical agriculture has consequently advanced in efficiency and is now striving toward a more sustainable future.
Champions of Soy
Plant traits directly influence the harvest. Brazilian soy farmers use fast ripening varieties adapted to the local climates that allow sowing a second crop immediately after harvesting the first. Effective crop protection is essential to keep the crop healthy during the cultivation period and to exploit the whole yield potential of the soy plants.
“The big boom started when EMBRAPA introduced new soy varieties specifically bred for the savannahs of mid-western Brazil”, explains Gerhard Bohne, former Head of Business Operations at Crop Science in Brazil. “This step consolidated soy as the lead crop of Brazilian agriculture”, he adds. In the 1970’s, the legume was becoming very successful in the south of Brazil. With its milder climate, the South offered similar conditions to those prevalent in the southern USA – home of the originally introduced varieties. But the good profits quickly turned cropland very expensive and unavailable in the region. Excited about the possibility of making more money by planting larger areas, many soybean growers sold their small southern properties and moved to larger areas in the savannah – also known as the “Cerrado”. There, land was cheap and plenty.
The “Cerrado” – Brazilian Savanna
State of Soy
At first, existing varieties grown in the South were not at all adapted to the lower latitudes of the Cerrado. So research organizations such as EMBRAPA followed the pioneers and searched for new technologies to farm the soybean frontier. The plants had to be adapted to fewer hours of sunshine and a very different climate. Through strategic breeding and genetic engineering, the initiative succeeded and gradually turned the cheap, unproductive and unpopulated land, into the most important region in today’s agricultural landscape. Because despite being chemically poor, the Cerrado’s soils have very good physical characteristics such as a flat topography and good rainfall distribution during the growing season. Today, the largest soy producer in Brazil is the giant mid-western state of “Mato Grosso”. It covers an area larger than that of France and Germany combined and produces more than one quarter of Brazil’s entire soy harvest.
State of Soy
“The success of soy in Mato Grosso shows that optimized varieties have helped to continuously raise productivity per hectare and reduced the need to expand horizontally. We call this vertical growth”, explains Bohne. But new varieties are just one example for Brazil’s tropical technology. One of the largest soy production sites in western Mato Grosso is the Tucunaré Farm of the agro company Amaggi, in the town of Sapezal. Its 42,000 hectares can yield well over 3.3 tons of golden beans per harvest. Recently, the farm has started to use mobile technology devices to observe the crop’s condition in detail. “We invested over US$ 100,000 in software development and tablet computers equipped with GPS”, says Ricardo Moreira, production control manager at Tucunaré. The tablets have replaced paper forms originally used to record the data collected in the field. A team of field monitors is dispatched to patrol the farm’s fields and each of their steps is traced by GPS. “If they find something critical in the field they can record this in the software in real-time and even attach a picture or record a voice message”, explains Moreira. The information the monitors gather regards infestation by insects and diseases at a resolution of several square meters. The exact position is automatically marked on a digital map. “Before, the information took three to five days to reach the company’s central office, where they had to be typed into the system before being analyzed”, says Moreira.
Now, when the field monitors return to the farm in the late afternoon, the collected data is synchronized wirelessly and transmitted to the agronomists at Amaggi’s main office in Mato Grosso’s capital Cuiabá. There, another program generates reports and alerts. The next day, the supervising agronomists can create work orders for their colleagues on the field based on the information collected hundreds of kilometers away. In addition to the monitoring software, the field employees also have access to electronic documents that assist in their every day activities. The documents include maps of the farm, machinery manuals or procedures for health and safety. All of this increases the accuracy of applied control measures and reduces costs. Pedro Valente, agro director at Amaggi: “So far, we’ve recorded a reduction of machine hours and fuel. The overall crop productivity has also improved.”
But the new approaches to Brazil’s tropical agriculture don’t stop here. “We promote several methods that are proving to be successful across the country”, says EMBRAPA researcher Divânia de Lima. Two of these are practiced at the V-Agro group’s farm “Ribeiro do Céu” near Nova Mutum in Mato Grosso: The first is Biological Nitrogen Fixation (BNF). “Next to photosynthesis, BNF is one of the most important natural processes on the planet”, says the farm’s manager, Volnei Vasconcelos Vieira. Bacteria, called “rhizobia”, establish symbiosis with the roots of leguminous plants and form nodular structures. It is in there that they capture and fix atmospheric nitrogen. This nitrogen is then transformed and made available to the host plant. Brazilian agricultural research has identified dozens of these bacteria capable of supplying nitrogen to different crops, but the example is of greatest economic impact for the country’s soybean producers. “BNF is able to provide all the necessary nitrogen, even for high-yielding varieties”, says Vieira. The method is now adopted in all Brazilian areas cultivated with soybeans – in total about 24 million hectares. By reducing the need for conventional nitrogen fertilizers, BNF results in annual savings of about seven billion dollars. Another widely used agricultural method is the Direct Planting System (DPS) – also known as no-tillage.
The Direct Planting System is based on three principles: no plowing before planting, keeping the soil covered with plant debris throughout the year and implementing regular crop rotations.
“DPS is one of the most efficient and sustainable farming systems practiced today”, says Vieira. It is based on three principles: no plowing before planting, keeping the soil covered with plant debris throughout the year and implementing regular crop rotations. And its benefits are diverse: “No-tillage minimizes the loss of soil by erosion, allows the conservation of soil properties by increasing its organic matter and greatly reduces the energy expenditure and production costs”, says de Lima. It also allows the Brazilian farmers to produce two crops per year, because corn, wheat or cotton can be planted directly after the soy harvest.
Down south in Paraná – the second agricultural powerhouse of Brazil – Vinicius Formighieri Lazarini practices another promising agricultural method: “The Crop–Livestock–Forestry Integration System (CLFIS) is one of the most important strategies for sustainable agricultural production. It allows agricultural, livestock and forestry activities in the same area”, he says. Lazarini has taken over management of his family’s 1,200-hectare farm near Cascavel. He is focused on achieving highest productivity while also trying to maintain the environment. The farm’s main crop is soybean. But it also produces corn, wheat, oats, beans and beef. One CLFIS approach is to grow commercial crops such as soybeans between rows of forest trees shortly after the trees have been planted. Thereafter, the area is planted with forages for livestock. Once the pasture is established between the tree rows, livestock grazes it until the trees are ready for harvest. This method is also useful for restoring degraded pastures, which have become a major problem in Brazil. “The benefits of this technology are reducing the pressure from deforestation, diversifying farmer’s income and reducing greenhouse gas emissions”, says de Lima.
The challenge now is to seek and promote solutions that will allow to further increase food production sustainably.
Brazil Production by commodities
Effective Crop Protection
All these examples have made Brazilian agriculture highly productive. “But it wouldn’t be possible without highly effective crop protection products”, says Lazarini. Because the tropical climate and other advantages also mean that insect pests and diseases can thrive. “Every year we have new problems because of this”, Lazarini adds. Two of the main culprits that Bayer has developed effective solutions for are a caterpillar called Helicoverpa and a fungus know as Asian Rust. “We have several products such as CropstarTM, BeltTM and FoxTM that are well known and widely used in Brazil to protect soybean fields from pests and diseases”, explains Bohne. Another problem is nematodes: tiny worms that infest the roots of the plant and spread quickly. For this, Bayer is developing cutting edge biological solutions that employ a natural barrier formed by bacteria. In the area of weeds Bayer is currently working on new varieties that are resistant to glufosinate. The new varieties represent a promising solution to combat growing weed resistances and will be available in two years for the Brazilian market. “Biologics and traits, conventional products, seed treatment and AgroServices are our four pillars of integrated crop management”, says Bohne.
Effective Crop Protection
Technologies like those offered by Bayer and initiatives led by EMBRAPA are turning Brazil into one of the most sustainable food and feed producers in the world. And this is very necessary: both the OECD and FAO foresee that Brazil will continue to be one of the main contributors to global food security in the future. Divânia de Lima: “The last 40 years saw us become one of the largest producers and exporters of agricultural goods. The challenge now is to seek and promote solutions that will allow to further increase food production sustainably.”
Thanks to Brazil’s tropical climate, it is possible to grow two different crops on the same field every year. Soy is mostly the primary crop. After it is harvested between late January and early April, the secondary crop – mainly corn, wheat or cotton – is sowed. Innovative agricultural methods and technology help to achieve the highest possible yields.