The myriad of literature on the global agricultural systems acclaim the recent development of the Brazilian agricultural sector. While Brazil is today a leading producer and exporter of soybean, sugar, coffee, oranges, poultry, beef, and recently ethanol, this prominent position in the global food market is a recent endeavour. Indeed, until the 1960s, Brazilian agriculture was composed first and foremost of coffee, sugar, and cotton. In the past half century, Brazil has evolved from a food-import country into the largest net-exporter of food and an agricultural superpower completely open to the international market. Herbert S. Klein (historian) and Francisco Vidal Luna (economist) describe this as “one of the most important developments in modern world history” (p.1). In their book Feeding the World: Brazil’s Transformation into a Modern Agricultural Economy, they take on the challenge of explaining how the agricultural sector in Brazil has evolved and why this agricultural change occurred. Based on quantitative data and drawing heavily on historical and economic social science research, the authors are concerned with the causes of this agricultural “revolution” as they call it. While emphasising the centrality of the country in the global agricultural market, they offer a thick description of changes that happened in the sector. They further explore the mechanisms that placed agriculture at the forefront of economic growth.
It is a unique book presenting an extensive survey of the economic history of agricultural changes in Brazil. Divided in four broad sections, the authors start by presenting a diachronic analysis of the socio-political system and the intricate changes that occurred in the agrarian sector. They present an overview of the agrarian system in Brazil since the beginning of the colonial era until the 1980s (chapter one), along with a rapid survey of how changes in agriculture occurred since the 1960s (chapter two). They argue that Brazil witnessed several stages of growth and crisis in certain agricultural and extractive products since the mid-1500s. While governmental interventions existed in the early 1900s to keep agriculture viable, the systematic approach taken in the 1960s to advance agriculture allowed its transition into a modern agricultural powerhouse. Second, the authors elaborate on the causes for this modernisation focusing on four main features – namely inputs, technology, productivity and sustainability. The authors maintain that regardless of the depression of the 1980s and the opening of Brazil’s economy in the 1990s, a combination of financing, distribution and protection mechanisms, along with dynamic entrepreneurial farmers, and agricultural research and education permitted the agricultural sector to become “highly competitive, dramatically increasing its productivity and inserting itself deep into national and international value chains” (p.138). Third, the authors shift their gaze from a national scale to a regional one, looking at regional pattern of agricultural changes. They start by reviewing changes in the various regions of Brazil, as well as the production and value of agricultural products in each of them (chapter five). Then, taking three case studies – Mato Grosso in the centre-west, Rio Grande do Sul in the south, and São Paulo the east coastal region – they examine the role of each one in the agricultural revolution (chapters six to eight). Although these three regions had different contexts, structures, and evolution patterns, their current role in the agricultural sector today is nevertheless fundamental. On the one hand, Mato Grosso and São Paulo are the leaders in many of the basic products being grown today in Brazil. Mato Grosso experienced the greatest growth, evolving from a poor semi-abandoned frontier in the 1800s to a modern centre of agricultural production in the early 21st century. São Paulo, the leading agricultural state from the late 19th century, make up today 2/3 of the gross value of agricultural production. On the other, Rio Grande do Sul is the leader in modern small-scale commercial agriculture and a major player in the pastoral industry. The region has created a vertically integrated production system of farm producers with either agro-industrial processors or central producer cooperatives. Finally, the authors give a brief and rapid overview on the traditional and subsistence farming sector while examining the debates on agrarian reform that took place since the 1960s.
While Klein and Vidal Luna have co-written extensively on the socio-economic and political history of Brazil and on slavery 1, Feeding the World is their first major endeavour to look exclusively at the agrarian history of Brazil. Touching on a broad range of agriculture production, this book engages with the country’s agricultural and its socio-political changes in a very elaborate manner. Although necessary to understand the very rapid evolution of Brazil, the book presents several lacunae. Throughout their book, the authors underlined three key elements: the Brazilian agro-food sector has been placed at the forefront of economic growth since the 1960s; this has happened in parallel with the implementation of policies and credits favourable for the development and modernisation of farming practices and export; while social and environmental impacts are not negligible. While the first two are thoroughly discussed in the book, the latter is only very superficially tackled. On the one hand, a large portion of the rural world, including small and family farming, still occupy a central role in the sector. Although these contribute significantly to the agri-food sector, the analysis presented in chapter nine is insufficient. Several organizations, resistance groups and activists, and cooperatives could have enriched the analysis. On the other hand, the impact of agricultural modernisation and productivity on the resources, deforestation, fertiliser and pesticide use, intensification, and the environment is largely ignored. Furthermore, the book is based exclusively on quantitative analysis and presents a macro study of the agrarian history of Brazil. This methodological approach gives a strong attention to numbers, and offers an overly narrow perception of the context. Important issues such as land conflict, land use, as well as the intricate differences between places and people are obstructed. This is assuming that statistical data are precisely collected and unbiased. However, several instances in the Brazilian context and elsewhere highlighted the misleading character of statistics. Nevertheless, I believe this book offers a solid base for further qualitative exploration at regional or state levels.
1 See for example: Herbert S. Klein, Francisco Vidal Luna, Slavery in Brazil, Cambridge 2009; Herbert S. Klein, Francisco Vidal Luna, Brazil, 1964-1985. The Military Regimes of Latin America in the Cold War, New Haven 2017; Francisco Vidal Luna, Herbert S. Klein, Slavery and the Economy of Sao Paulo,1750-1850, Berkeley 2003; Francisco Vidal Luna, Herbert S. Klein, The Economic and Social History of Brazil since 1889, Cambridge 2014.