Background on Brazil’s Cerrado Region
From only 200,000 hectares of arable land in 1955, the Cerrado had well over 40 million hectares in cultivation by the year 2005. The phenomenal achievement of transforming the infertile Cerrado region into highly productive land over a span of fifty years, the world’s single largest increase in farmland since the settlement of the U.S. Midwest, has been hailed as a far-reaching milestone in agricultural science.
The Cerrado is an arid brush savanna stretching over 120 million hectares across central Brazil from the western plains to the northeastern coast. With soils characterized by high acidity and aluminum levels that are toxic to most crops, Brazilian farmers had long referred to the area as campos cerrados – “closed land,” with little promise for sustaining production.
The Cerrado’s potential was first unlocked by applications of lime and phosphate-rich fertilizers, which together reduced acidity and improved fertility in the soil. Initial tests by Colin McClung in the 1950s dramatically increased yields of a variety of crops within one growing season. Later agronomy research and extension work with farmers was led by Edson Lobato. His efforts and those of his colleagues further refined fertilizer and soil nutrient applications in the Cerrado.
The promise of improved soils spurred nationwide reforms of agricultural research and extension programs on the federal and state levels. Organized under Minister of Agriculture Alysson Paolinelli, Brazil’s federal agricultural research organization EMBRAPA has emerged as a global leader for improving degraded tropical soils and breeding enhanced crops. EMBRAPA is the source of 30 percent of all public research in Latin America, and it maintains strong partnerships with research institutions and universities internationally.
With improved soil chemistry and the support of flexible research institutions, plant scientists in Brazil have developed high-yielding crop varieties for the Cerrado that are more tolerant of aluminum toxicity and acquire soil micronutrients more effectively. In recent years, agronomists have also refined no-till or direct planting technologies, reducing environmental degradation and maintaining higher levels of soil organic matter.
The Cerrado region now provides 54 percent of all soybeans harvested in Brazil, 28 percent of the country’s corn, and 59 percent of its coffee. Cerrado agriculture has also diversified to include rice, cotton, cassava, and sugar. For all crops, average yields in the Cerrado are higher than in other areas, with harvests reaching 4.8 tons per hectare of soybeans and 11 tons per hectare of corn. In addition, the Cerrado supports 55 percent of Brazil’s beef industry.
The increased production of a variety of crops and livestock has made food more available and more affordable in Brazil. In the past 25 years, food prices have steadily dropped by an average of 5 percent annually. At the same time, the standard of living for many rural communities has been enhanced, with life-quality indicators rising 47 percent from 1970 through the 1990s.
“Eventually, the Cerrado technology, or one similar to it, will move into the llanos in Colombia and Venezuela and hopefully, into central and southern Africa where similar soil problems are found,” said Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and World Food Prize Founder Dr. Norman E. Borlaug. “This will bring tens of millions of additional acres, previously marginal for agriculture, into high-yield agriculture. Hundreds of millions of people will benefit from this work.”