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Why is Brazil the new America? Hint: water.

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In other words, American agricultural output is supported by the hydrological equivalent of deficit spending. The Dust Bowl was not dampened by greater rainfall, but by the invention of more powerful pumps that could lift water from deep underground. The Ogallala is a wide but shallow aquifer that was formed in the last Ice Age and has been drained every year since the 1930s to a far greater degree than it can be recharged by natural rainfall.

What does this have to do with Brazil? As I spell out in my new book, "Brazil is the New America," Brazil is the world’s superpower of water.

Half a lifetime ago, when I was in college, a shortfall in the US corn crop would have spelled disaster for Brazil. In those days, Brazil was a food importer. The Brazilians believed what all the temperate-centric agronomists told them – that tropical countries could not produce grains. But then something astonishing happened. Brazil transformed itself from a major agricultural importer into the world’s largest exporter of five major crops. As the Frank Sinatra song underscored, it had long been known that “there is a lot of coffee in Brazil.” What no one knew 35 years ago is that Brazil had the capacity to become the breadbasket of the world – even for what were once thought to be exclusively temperate climate crops.

While experts from the temperate zone were dismissing even the possibility that a tropical country could become a major agricultural power, the Brazilians created Embrapa, (Empresa Brasileira de Pesquisa Agropecuária), a technical firm associated with the Brazilian Ministry of Agriculture. Embrapa devised ways to turn Brazil’s vast Cerrado savanna into a highly productive region.  Among other things, they engineered a new breed of grass that greatly increased pasture yields,  allowing Brazil to become within a few decades  the world’s largest producer of beef.  

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