Agrofuels and food production

Ariovaldo Umbelino*
Da Folha de S. Paulo

The relationship between the expansion of agrofuels and the production of food has taken over the international agenda. The world agriculture is still going through deep transformations. The advance of the “comodification” of food and the genetic control of seeds which have always been the heritage of humanity has been accelerated. Two monopolist processes command the world agricultural production. On one hand, is the de-territorialisation of monopoly, acting simultaneously to control private ownership of land, the productive process in the countryside and the industrial processing of agricultural and cattle production. The main example being the sugar-ethanol sector.

On the other hand, is the monopoly of territory by companies involved in trade and industrial processing of the agricultural and cattle production, which without producing absolutely anything in the land, control through mechanisms of subjection, peasants and capitalist producers in the countryside.

The monopolistic corporations of the crop sector act as “players” in the futures market of the world, and many times they also have the equally monopolistic control of the agrochemical and fertilizer production.
This crisis therefore, has two foundations. First, of a more limited reflexion, refers to the rise of the international price of oil, and consequently, the rise of the cost of fertilizers and agrochemicals.
The second is a consequence of the consumption rise, but not direct consumption such as food, as the Brazilian government want to make us believe, but rather, the one originated from the option of the United States for the production of ethanol from corn. This route leads to the reduction of international stocks for this crop and the rise of its prices as well as other crops such as wheat, rice, soy.

Thus, the North American “solution” against global warming has become a paradise for the easy gains of the “players” of international monopolies which produce nothing, but subject producers and consumers to their logic of accumulation.

Certainly, there is no way back for the crises, since, in the North-American case, the available farming soils are fought over among wheat, corn and soya.

The advance of one inevitably reflects in the withdrawal of the other. That is the reason for Jean Ziegler’s, from the UN (United Nations) criticism, who classified ethanol as a “crime against humanity”.

It is in the centre of this crisis that Brazilian agro business and agro-fuels want to get a ride into the future grounded in the reproduction of the past. The government is paving the way.

Because of that, the issue of agrofuels and food production kick back directly in Brazilian countryside. The sugar-cane farming area in the last crop came close to 7 million hectares, and in Sao Paulo, which concentrates more than 50% of the total; it already covers almost all the existing fertile soil.

In the midst of the expansion of the agrofuels, a question must be asked: what are the consequences, of the expansion of the sugar-cane plantations in the last 15 years, for food production in Brazil?

Data from the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics [IBGE], between 1990 and 2006, reveals that the reduction in the production of food imposed by the expansion of sugar cane plantations, increased by more than 2.7 million hectares in the period. Taking counties where the expansion exceeded 500 hectares of sugarcane for the period, one sees that, there was a reduction of 261 thousand hectares of beans and 340 thousand hectares of rice.

The reduced area could produce 400 tons of beans, which represents, 12% of the national production, and 1 million tons of rice, which is equivalent to 9% of the total production in the country. Furthermore, in those counties there was a reduction in production of 460 million of litres of milk and more than 4.5 million heads of cattle were reduced.

Even though this expansion is more concentrated in Sao Paulo, it is already happening in the state of Parana, Mato Grosso, Minas triangle, Goias and Mato Grosso. In those states, the production area of agricultural goods has been reduced and it has been transferred towards the Amazon. Consequently causing deforestation. Therefore, the expansion of the agrofuels will continue to cause the reduction of the food production.
The production of the three main staple foods in the country – rice, beans and cassava – has not increased since the 90’s, and Brazil has become the largest wheat importer in the world. Therefore the way out of the crises for the construction of a food sovereignty policy is still the implementation of the agrarian reform, general and massive.

*Ariovaldo Umbelino is a professor of agrarian geography at USO [University of Sao Paulo] and director of ABRA [Braziliann Association of Agrarina reform]. He was a member of the team responsible for drafting a proposal for the Second national Agrarian reform Plan for Lula’s administration (2003). (This article was published in Folha de S. Paulo, April 17th, 2008. Transleted by Ana Amorim).

Igor Felippe Santos
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Secretaria Nacional – SP
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