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Farming superpower Brazil spreads its know-how

It is bringing the technologies of tropical farming to other parts of Latin America, and to Africa and Asia.

By Staff writer / November 12, 2008

Top crop: Soybeans being loaded into a truck in Castrolanda, Brazil, this spring.

Rodolfo Buhrer/AP

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Planaltino, Brazil

As a young soil scientist, Edson Lobato looked out at the vast savanna of central Brazil and imagined fields of soy, corn, and cotton where most saw an inhospitable mass of red earth and tangled trees.

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His friends and family urged him to take his agronomy degree elsewhere, somewhere it would make a difference. But he joined Brazil's agricultural and livestock research agency (Embrapa) and relocated to the country's heartland, called the cerrado, where there was, at the time, little besides wooded plains, termites, and deer.

Embrapa then set out to prove that those soils could produce like the most efficient cropland of Idaho. The agency poured millions into research. It sent teams of scientists like Mr. Lobato to the American Midwest to glean as much know-how as possible.

Today his vision has helped turn Brazil into the world's largest exporter of soybeans, beef, chicken, orange juice, ethanol, and sugar.

The significance for the globe is huge. Two years ago, Mr. Lobato and two others received the World Food Prize for "one of the great achievements of agricultural science in the 20th century." As Asian diets and quality of life improve, putting pressure on available land and contributing to a spike in food prices earlier this year, Brazil could be one of the answers to the global food crisis.

Yet today it is emerging as more than just a supplier. Its scientists are now bringing the technologies of tropical agriculture to other parts of Latin America, and to Africa and Asia. In 2006, Embrapa opened its first foreign office in the West African nation of Ghana to lead the effort. Lobato assessed soils in Mozambique this year. And in May, Embrapa dispatched its first team to Venezuela to help boost food production.

"In the 1970s, '80s, and '90s, there was a lot of collaboration and support from the US and Europe," says Elisio Contini, head of Embrapa's Office of International Affairs – helping to turn Brazil into the agricultural powerhouse it is today. "Now we think it's time to transfer technology to other poor countries in Latin America and Africa. We are supporting them like the Americans supported us."

Embrapa's success is piquing curiosity worldwide. Last year, 107 international groups visited its headquarters in Brasilia.