Brazil's Rising Food Power in a Hungry World

A record soybean harvest highlights the nation's growing agricultural output.

A producer holds soybeans seeds ready to be planted in Pulinopolis, Brazil.

A producer holds soybeans seeds ready to be planted in Pulinopolis, Brazil.

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LUCAS DO RIO VERDE, BRAZIL—This is arguably soybean ground zero, the small city in the west-central Brazilian state of Mato Grosso around which some of the world's most mammoth harvests of the protein-rich beans just took place a few weeks ago. As such, some food analysts—and, not least, some Brazilian crop producers—see the Mato Grosso farm belt as offering the best prospect for meeting the rising demand for affordable food in the world.

In fact, the soy crop sitting in massive grain elevators here or rolling on dusty, flat-bed trucks to ocean ports for export has apparently set a harvest record for Brazil; a record harvest is also expected for the corn maturing in the same fields right now.

Brazil is the world's most dynamic rising agricultural producer, boasting astonishing growth in the past two decades. It is already the No. 1 exporter in the world of an impressive range of food: beef, chicken, soy, sugar, orange juice, and coffee. It is rising in other crops and in pork as well.

It sports an enviable combination of available land, sunshine, and abundant water that routinely permits two, or even three, crops a year on the same land. Brazil, it turns out, very likely has more unused but serviceable arable land than any other country on the planet.

Most Brazilian agriculture specialists apparently think that their country is bound eventually to overtake the United States as the world's top farm producer. National government-sponsored research is intensifying yields of crops. At the same time, Brazil has more available but unexploited farmland than all of what is being currently used in the European Union, says São Paulo-based agricultural economist Andre Nassar. "Agricultural production is expanding in all crops in Brazil," he says.

Farmers and agribusiness people in this part of Brazil are watching the global food commodity price issue with considerable interest. By and large, they believe that the highly mechanized, chemical-intensive, big-scale production they have developed (and in some cases adapted from the U.S.) is what a world contending with expensive food staples needs.

"With the world growing in population at this pace, there is no other option," says Otaviano Olavo Pivetta, one of Brazil's largest agricultural landowners. "We will apply technology in whatever form it comes."

Still, Brazilian food producers are plagued by a rugged and inadequate infrastructure, as anyone experiencing the bone-jarring trip up the pothole-riven Highway 163 comes to understand quickly. Securing sufficient financial capital has been tough. High fuel and fertilizer prices are also eating at the incentive to plant more. And environmental pressure—ranging from a temporary moratorium by some buyers to shun soy grown in the Amazon to an aggressive crackdown on unauthorized clearing of forest by the Brazilian federal police—has made many farmers wary of expansion.

Nonetheless, the farmers and agribusiness people of Mato Grosso think the world will be looking to them to help fill its refrigerators and pantries—at an acceptable price. "The last frontier of the world to produce food will be here," predicts Clovis Picolo Filho, a farmer and agricultural chemicals dealer just up the road from Lucas, in the town of Sorriso.

A look at the truck traffic down Brazil's Highway 163 suggests that frontier has been amply discovered.