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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.

(Page 2 of 4)

On a recent day, a delegation from Colombia sits in Mr. Contini's office, scribbling notes as Contini details the history of the cerrado's transformation. He shows them an illustration about no-till planting – a technique that's been perfected on the vast fields of Brazil. In the presentation, dozens of tractors in V formation harvest soybeans as another line of machines, directly behind the first, sows corn. "Forty years ago, this didn't exist here," Contini tells them. "Maybe this could exist for the llanos [plains] of Colombia."

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The group listens to his words intently. "Brazil has become the No. 1 exporter of beef, and we are here to see how they did it," says Manuel Gomez Vivas, who works in the economic research department of the Federation of Colombian Stockbreeders.

"Embrapa's international movement is growing fast," says Contini.

Brazil's agricultural story first begins at the Embrapa Cerrados center north of Brasilia in Planaltino, among a 3,100-hectares expanse of laboratories and fields.

It is here that scientists such as Lobato learned how to reduce acidity of the cerrado soil by applying phosphorous and lime and developed dozens of varieties of tropical soybeans, which until then had been considered only a temperate-zone crop.

Today, the cerrado accounts for 63 percent of soybean production in Brazil, the nation's largest and most successful crop.

"It was the first entity to bring vegetable or plant sources of protein to low-latitude regions," says Peter Goldsmith, executive director of the National Soy Research Laboratory at the University of Illinois. It is on a par with the "Green Revolution," he says, which refers to work started in the 1940s in the US to develop more types of wheat to feed growing populations.

In 1973, when Embrapa was founded, only a handful of employees had PhDs. Today about 1,600 have their doctorates, mostly from the US and Europe, and the agency is undergoing an expansion that will make it one of the largest agricultural centers in the world.

But research alone could not have transformed this vast savanna, which represents one-quarter of the entire landmass of Brazil. The military government of the 1970s made a calculated decision to inhabit the region by turning it into fertile farmland, giving credits and incentives to farmers in the temperate south to relocate, and inciting a mass migration of people.

That decision still remains controversial, and has grown more contentious as commodities prices have boomed over the years, spurring farmers to expand into undeveloped areas. Environmentalists have accused soy producers and cattle ranchers of degrading the cerrado and encroaching on the Amazon.

Embrapa says the challenge is real: Of all land deforested in South America, 73 percent is in Brazil, and today the fringes of the Amazon are of great concern, says Denis Minev, the secretary of planning and economic development for the state of Amazonas. But Embrapa maintains that production in the cerrado can increase on existing lands with greater efficiency, not needing expansion. Grain production in the cerrado, for example, increased 129.7 percent from 1991 to 2007, but the area harvested increased by only 25.9 percent.