26 August 2010

An Integrated Approach to Agriculture

This is a very interesting article in "The Economist" on Brazil's agricultural miracle. Can their "systems approach" be replicated? It seems to me that there is no single answer to making agriculture sustainable AND plentiful enough to feed a growing population. It must be an integrated effort. There is value to local and organic food, but we can't go back to some over-romanticized past. Science, technology and the economies of scale also have their place. What's clear is that we need more research to be done that is not influenced by corporations such as Monsanto, but instead inspired by the desire for human betterment. The Embrapa research institution in Brazil seems to provide a nice model for the rest of the world, not only as an example for better agriculture, but also as an example of how science can be used for the betterment of humanity.  Here is an excerpt. 

Embrapa is short for Empresa Brasileira de Pesquisa Agropecu√°ria, or the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation. It is a public company set up in 1973, in an unusual fit of farsightedness by the country’s then ruling generals. At the time the quadrupling of oil prices was making Brazil’s high levels of agricultural subsidy unaffordable. Mauro Lopes, who supervised the subsidy regime, says he urged the government to give $20 to Embrapa for every $50 it saved by cutting subsidies. It didn’t, but Embrapa did receive enough money to turn itself into the world’s leading tropical-research institution. It does everything from breeding new seeds and cattle, to creating ultra-thin edible wrapping paper for foodstuffs that changes colour when the food goes off, to running a nanotechnology laboratory creating biodegradable ultra-strong fabrics and wound dressings. Its main achievement, however, has been to turn the cerrado green.

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