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AGRICULTURE: Brazil Shares Technology with Africa

Mario Osava

RIO DE JANEIRO, Apr 21 2008 (IPS) - The people of Brazil have reason to believe that they are making a real contribution to reducing hunger and environmental threats in the world by developing agricultural technology that has begun to be shared with poorer countries.

 Credit: UN DPI Photo

Credit: UN DPI Photo

One example is the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation’s (EMBRAPA) new office in Africa, which was inaugurated Sunday in Accra by President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva on an official visit to Ghana.

Brazil has also made progress in following many of the recommendations of the three- year International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), Paulo Galerani, technical coordinator of EMBRAPA in Africa, told IPS.

The IAASTD is a panel sponsored by the World Bank and five United Nations agencies to examine agriculture from all angles and determine how farming might be done more sustainably in the future.

The panel, which brought together more than 400 scientists and experts from governments, civil society and the private sector, produced five regional assessments and a synthesis report approved by an Apr. 7-12 intergovernmental plenary conference in Johannesburg, South Africa that was attended by representatives of around 60 governments.

The reports include a highly critical assessment of the direction taken by agriculture in the world, which has left in its wake poverty, environmental damages and more than 800 million hungry people. They also outline future scenarios marked by climate change, as well as recommendations on the role of knowledge systems, science and agricultural technologies.

Galerani, who took part in the Johannesburg meeting, said the technology for the production of ethanol fuel from sugar cane represented an advance in the search for more efficient and lower-cost biofuels, which he said help alleviate climate change – a claim that has been called into question, however, by environmentalists and others.

Brazil, and especially EMBRAPA, a network of 41 research centres, has also made huge strides in biotechnology that have helped reduce the use of pesticides and fertilisers and improve crop resistance to drought and pests, he said.

These are advances in know-how and technology that Brazil plans to "transfer and adapt" to Africa, which will thus benefit from them without having to lose "so much time," said the researcher.

EMBRAPA’s Africa office, which began to be set up in July 2006, contributes to development on two fronts: small farms, based on the experience of research centres that are active in Brazil’s impoverished semi-arid northeast; and commercial agriculture, the head of the office in Accra, Claudio Bragantini, explained to IPS.

The first case involves less developed countries that have productive potential but on a small scale, similar to the situation in Brazil’s northeastern region, where there is a heavy concentration of family farms, which under the Lula administration have benefited from a major expansion of soft loans and technical support.

The second case targets "countries that have vast available grasslands, with good topography and possibilities for large-scale production," similar to Brazil’s central Cerrado region, said Bragantini, who mentioned Angola, Congo and Zambia as examples.

The private sector in Africa rapidly expressed strong interest in taking advantage of the Brazilian technology, to "my pleasure and surprise," said the Brazilian agronomist, who lived in other African countries in previous decades and said he has seen a big difference in the attitude of today’s farmers.

The technology transfer began with training provided by means of bilateral technical cooperation and mechanisms involving international bodies. But later the efforts expanded to include large farmers in Africa, who were mainly interested in Brazil’s know-how on biofuels, a variety of agribusiness products, and livestock breeding, said Bragantini.

"The green revolution has not yet happened in Africa. It is just now beginning to take shape," which makes support from more developed countries extremely important, he said.

Brazil has put a high priority on the development of agrofuels, with President Lula making frequent tours abroad and signing agreements with a number of countries.

However, the Brazilian government and business community face the challenge of refuting loud criticism of biofuels, which are accused by many of driving up food prices.

Brazil seems to be on the losing end of the information war, having failed to demonstrate to global public opinion the difference between the ethanol it has produced from sugar cane to replace gasoline for more than 30 years, and U.S. biofuels, which are based on corn and have accentuated imbalances in the global food market.

Lula is convinced that biofuels present an opportunity for agricultural development in Africa, where he believes they can reduce hunger and poverty by generating incomes and improving rural living conditions, while at the same time helping to mitigate climate change by replacing fossil fuels.

All three of the objectives laid out by the IAASTD would thus be met, if production is carried out in a sustainable fashion.

EMBRAPA, which has played a decisive role in the agricultural boom in Brazil, a country that doubled its output in 10 years while expanding the area under cultivation by a mere 20 percent, is a major instrument for environmentally and socially sustainable development in Brazil and assistance to poorer regions.

The IAASTD, however, does not exempt Brazil and the rest of Latin America from tough criticism, for leaving millions of people steeped in poverty and hunger despite the region’s vast extensions of fertile land, much of which is concentrated in the hands of a relatively few large landowners.

According to Galerani, the assessment was heavily influenced "ideologically" by civil society at the start, tending, for example, towards outright rejection of genetically modified crops and biofuels. But in the end, he said, a certain balance was achieved, with the concerns of governments taken into account, and new technologies accepted as long as they are employed with the necessary safeguards and care.

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