21st Sep 2023

Brazil pitches itself as answer to Ukraine war food shortages

  • Hard-right Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro said: 'Agribusiness guarantees our food security and that of one billion people in the world' (Photo: Palácio do Planalto)
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As the war in Ukraine has triggered significant shocks in global food markets and price hikes, increasing food production is seen as the main solution for the worldwide food crisis currently unfolding.

Earlier this year, the head of the World Trade Organization (WTO) Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala called on Brazil to play an "active role" in increasing food supplies to fulfil the gap in world markers resulting from major disruptions in food and fertilizer exports from Russia and Ukraine.

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But campaigners have raised concerns over the environmental impact of agricultural land expansion in Brazil, arguing there is a risk of fuelling deforestation and increased use of pesticides.

The pandemic already triggered "a dark scenario" for food security but the war in Ukraine has put downward pressure on agricultural production and global food markets, Alexandre Parola, a WTO representative of Brazil, said on Monday (25 July).

"People around the world affected by this crisis need an immediate answer, Brazil is part of that answer," he said, arguing that his country is "a provider for food security".

Betting on wheat

Brazil, a traditional wheat importer, exported about three million tonnes of wheat in the first half of 2022 — filling the gap that Ukraine and Russia left in markets and prompting farmers to bet on wheat over corn or other crops.

With nearly 50 countries depending on Russian and Ukraine's wheat exports, the timing for Brazilian farmers could not be better.

Brazil, Latin America's largest economy, is one of the major food producers in the world, with soybeans, corn, sugarcane, beans, and rice accounting for about 90 percent of its annual crops.

But wheat production has been significantly increasing during the last years — in a bid to reach self-sufficiency and potentially increase exports.

"We can become one of the largest exporters of wheat worldwide in the next five years," said Celso Moretti, an agronomist and chief of Embrapa, Brazil's agricultural research agency. 

Brazil is expected to harvest a record nine million tonnes of wheat this year, but this is not enough to meet the 12 million tonnes country's population consumed, Moretti said.

Last year, the Latin American country imported about 40 percent of its wheat demand.

One of the immediate major obstacles for Brazilian farmers to expand production is the current shortage of fertilisers, of which Russia is the world's second-largest exporter. Fertilisers are seen as crucial to increasing yields that would allow Brazil to expand food exports.

As Brazil imports some 80 percent of its fertiliser, mainly from Russia and Belarus, the Brazilian government has opposed imposing sanctions on Moscow in response to the invasion of Ukraine.

Hard-right Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro highlighted on Monday the importance of Russian fertiliser imports to Brazilian agriculture, during the Global Agribusiness Forum 2022 in the city of Sao Paulo.

"Agribusiness guarantees our food security and that of one billion people in the world," he said.

Bolsonaro's National Fertiliser Plan

Bolsonaro also said his government last year put forward a National Fertilizer Plan to search for alternatives to fertiliser imports.

Nevertheless, the 'fertiliser crisis' is also affecting African countries, raising fears over a looming hunger catastrophe in some vulnerable countries. This issue has also been raised by European countries.

The UN previously warned that the war in Ukraine could lead to between eight and 13 million more people being undernourished next year.

2022 UN food insecurity map. Food insecurity is defined as the lack of regular access to enough quantity of affordable and nutritious food (Photo: FAO)

Part of the reasoning behind the WTO's appeal to increase agricultural production in Brazil is to reduce food prices — and inflation.

"Brazil and other WTO member can…cooperate with a view to ensuring enhanced productivity and production, trade, availability and accessibility and affordability of food for those who need it, especially in humanitarian emergencies," a WTO spokesperson told EUobserver.

But campaigners have shed doubts over the capacity of Brazil to feed the world, since 33 million people currently experience hunger in the country of 215 million people.

The pandemic and the dismantling of food security policies by the Brazilian government are being blamed for undermining the progress made up to 2014, when Brazil disappeared from the UN hunger map.

Cécilia Rocha, a food expert at the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food (IPES) argues that it is "doubtful" whether Brazil's agricultural expansion could have a "significant" impact on world food inflation.

"[But] the risks of having this extra production coming from deforestation and increased use of pesticides are very high under a government notoriously negligent with environmental concerns and public health," she told EUobserver.

Echoing the message, the head of the global human-rights organisation FIAN International, Sofia Monsalve Suarez, said the current food crisis shows the need for reforms and "an update of the food trade rulebook" to ensure a fairer global food system.

For their part, Brazilian agri-food business leaders argue that the expansion of agricultural land for the production of wheat and other food products would come from the conversion of pasture fields.

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