Entrevistas Política Externa Brasileira

Interfaces of the Brazilian food system, capital and sovereignty in an internationalizing domestic food regime – an interview with Helder do Vale, by Bruno Magalhães

Professor Helder do Vale promotes new thinking about how the Brazilian and global food regimes interconnect in a world in which the “food agenda” face significant and increasing challenges. In the article Local-global linkages in the food regime: global history and the internationalization of Brazilian agribusiness published in the number 1, volume 61 of Revista Brasileira de Política Internacional – RBPI, Do Vale explores patterns of the local-global interaction of the Brazilian agribusiness and analyzes some new opportunities that are emerging in global food regimes as a result. I propose to do Vale to discuss a few extra “food issues”, such as food systems and sovereignty, circulating productive capital, and smallholder farming – resulting in interesting additional observations from the author.

Your article presents that the transitions and the changes in the Brazilian food regime have promoted a less hierarchical strategy. This has fostered a more cooperative coalition mode since the 1980s in the Brazilian agribusiness. Sequencing that argumentation, since the globalizing processes of the 1990s, one can note a considerate increase in the offer and the participation of private and international capital in the Brazilian food chain. Mostly, the financial contribution of private and international capital in Brazil focus on mitigating production and market risks of current and past crops. To what extent can private and international capital set an alternative to the public national capital for the Brazilian agribusiness elites, possibly making them less competitive for resources with other domestic economic actors? To what extent can these sources of capital shape the Brazilian agribusiness elites’ common influence within the domestic power structure, thus setting internationalized preferences against the national and global food regimes?

The article suggests that the national and international dimensions are interlinked in the global food regime through different channels (e.g., trade, production chains), and, as such, local production and consumption of food do not exist in complete isolation.

This approach to the global food regime, in which Brazil has become an important player, considers that within countries different actors may pursue alternative strategies, which are not necessarily competing against each other. That said, private international capital has a role to play in Brazil.

I point out in my article that while participating in the global food regime multinational companies, mainly in the soybean industry, have built a different strategy than that pursued by the Brazilian government and created a transnational space for the production of soybean.

Brazil has been attracting foreign multinationals in the agricultural sector for decades. It is possible to say that these companies have contributed to the modernization of production through capital investment, integration of the production supply chain (input production, retail and export), and the introduction of new technologies. Furthermore, foreign multinationals have had a positive impact on innovation, and therefore, I understand that they have helped to create an internationally competitive agricultural sector in Brazil.

A more concrete example provides evidence on how foreign multinationals can be an asset for Brazilian agriculture. EMBRAPA has benefited in the past from public-private partnerships to incorporate and develop technologies from BASF and from Monsanto in the development of herbicides for local producers. The BASF-EMBRAPA partnership has created the Sistema Culitvance for the creation of genetically modified soybean seeds and herbicides for higher yields in the Cerrado.

Focusing on the negative side, these foreign companies also had an adverse effect in the domestic market as they increased industry concentration through the elimination of small and medium domestic competitors. There is evidence that in several segments of the agricultural sector, national companies lost space for multinationals.

Despite the increasing presence of multinationals in the agricultural sector since the 1990s, several Brazilian companies remained strong in the market and some of them without the direct financial support of the government (e.g., Cutrale).

Some analysts suggest that for the consolidation of national companies in the agricultural sector, it is necessary the verticalization of production provided that the multinationals control the chain of production. Under this strategy, several Brazilian agricultural cooperatives (e.g., Coamo) have been very successful in maintaining their market share through higher investment in technology.

The national agricultural policies create distinct networks of public policies that consist of a wide range of actors. Today, Brazil can support both agribusiness (large-scale and commodities) and smallholder farming, reinforcing a dual public administration under the, respectively, leadership of the ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Food Supply and of what once was the ministry of Agrarian Development. This double commitment, started with Cardoso and Lula, is due to the increase in exports and the surplus trade balance that agribusiness can bring to Brazil; and is also due the relevance of food and nutrition security, job creation and the reduction of inequality that smallholder farming provides to the country. From the perspective of a dual national food regime, Brazil plays a worldwide recognized leading role in the global food regime when it comes to smallholder farming. Examples of the Brazilian leadership of the local-global strategy linked to smallholder farming and its impacts on food and nutritional security are the election of José Graziano to the FAO Directorate-General; the enhancement of the projection of the Brazilian Foreign Policy through South-South cooperation; and the Brazilian triangular cooperation with WFP, FAO and IFAD. Until 2015, agribusiness and smallholder farming were developed parallelly. However, there is now a decrease in this pairing with reductions in the PAA and PRONAF budgets and with the merge of the ministry of Agrarian Development with the ministry of Social Development. In the meantime, most of the agribusiness policies and frameworks stayed in place. Are there possible ways to guarantee or even to expand this double-participation of Brazil as a “smallholder farming and agribusiness” actor in the world food regime?

Yes, an expansion of what you refer to as “double-participation” is both possible and desirable. The state has the ability to simultaneously engage in forging partnerships with a wide array of actors on multiple fronts. It is perfectly compatible for the Brazilian state to build partnership both with small farmers and large food producers.

Although my article focuses on the particular partnership between the state and the large actors in agribusiness, if we include small farmers (I am using this term also to refer to family farms provided that these two categories overlap to a large extent) into the picture, it is possible to envision a durable “double-partnership.” In this context, partnerships are often sealed with the distribution of public resources to the different groups of domestic actors.

However, public commitment to a “double-partnership” has not been historically durable. As you observe, more recently there has been a reduction in the budget of government programs, the PAA and the PRONAF, which were used to help small farmers to enter the food market while fostering rural development. This slow withdrawal shows that the level of public commitment to small farmers in relation to the state commitment to the traditional agribusiness groups is asymmetrical. While the former group has not been systematically supported, the latter group has benefitted from a historical commitment of the state.

There are structural and institutional elements that make the state-agribusiness partnership more strategic and, therefore, more durable than the state-small farmers’ partnership. Firstly, agribusiness interest is more organized and, as such, more capable of articulating its interest before the state. Secondly, there is a historic policy bias in Brazil to favor large producers because they are associated with a more efficient production, and, consequently, with a reduction of food prices. Thirdly, capital-intensive cash crops tend to be the focus of public policies because they are more directly linked to the modernization of the agricultural sector, and more conducive to support economic growth.

Despite the preferential position of large food producers, it would be desirable that the state maintained a strong partnership with small farmers. One of the main reasons would be the importance of small family farming to the Brazilian domestic market. According to estimates, family farming is responsible for supplying approximately 70% of the domestic food consumption. They are critical to the domestic market because they help to reduce the costs associated with transportation in a country that faces considerable infrastructural challenges in the distribution of food.

Also by supporting small farmers, the Brazilian state is making a social investment, as they are an important source of rural employment and they help to reduce rural poverty as well as the rural-urban developmental disparities. Additionally, small farming often uses traditional methods of production, which have a tendency to be more environmentally friendly.

For small farmers to be perceived as a strategic partner for the state, firstly, there is a need to overcome the ideological/political approach to small farmers and free from political labels the support given to them. Secondly, there is a need to change the notion that small farmer only need financial resource. And, thirdly, the investment on capacity building of farmers should be prioritized.

The support of the state should focus on specific need of small farmers in each of the different regions of Brazil and this support should also come in the form of capacity building. For example, the initiative of EMBRAPA under the “Balde Cheio” initiative has been successful in transferring technology with the purpose of improving productivity while passing knowledge on how to preserve the environment. This initiative shows that, although timid, there is some degree of commitment of the public institutions in Brazil to support small farmers, which should be further enlarged.

Currently, agribusiness in Brazil focuses mostly on sugarcane and grains, such as soybeans, corn, wheat, rice, sunflower, which are destined mostly for processed-food industry, livestock feeding, biofuels, and exportation. Despite the agribusiness socioeconomic importance for the Brazilian GDP and trade balance, there is only a handful of companies that control more and more the national food production chain. It seems that scenarios in which the more internationalized the regime, the more commoditized and foreign-looking the national food regime becomes. Might that be the case for Brazil, to what extent can the commoditization and industrialization of our food system diminish our food sovereignty and our international projection as an actor in a global food regime?

From the vantage point of the “third global food regime,” local spaces are not precluded from being relevant in this emerging new web of relationships and linkages behind food production and consumption. Under this interpretation, borders between local and global are blurred and the forms of maintaining and exercising power/influence are less conventional.

If food sovereignty is understood as the right of small farmers to control local production for local consumption, both the industrialization and the commoditization of food production do not necessarily endanger food sovereignty. I believed that small-scale farming might coexist with large-scale production. Farmers’ autonomy can be built through their integration to markets where large players have an advantage.

The local food industry is responsible for a sizeable part of the global food production. Among the benefits of locally produced food is the diversity of food supply in the face of growing homogenization of crops. Furthermore, small farmers contribute to improving the quality of food. In addition to these crucial roles, small farmers seem to be environmentally sensitive, counterbalancing the trend of land and soil degradation.

However, the consolidation and sustainability of local food production are still in different ways difficult. The challenges of small farmers face in Brazil are not only due to the mere existence of large-scale production, it is also due to shifts in demographic and climate changes.

It is important to call attention to the following observation. Suggesting that food sovereignty is not being threatened, does not meant that there are no changes in local spaces of food production or that conflicts over land between peasant and large producers do not exist.

The Brazilian state is critical for promoting food sovereignty. That said, the Brazilian federal government should use its regulatory power over domestic food markets and promote a fair trade model, which strengthens the position of small producers through stable prices and market access. This has been the precise role of the PPA and PNAE, which target a group of vulnerable producers and integrate them into the food market.

Under the internationalization of Brazilian agribusiness, I understand that there is a serious yet overlooked issue, which is relevant for food sovereignty, which is the negative social effect of this internationalization strategy. Although I interpreted that these effects were unintended, they are a reality that future governments of Brazil must pay attention to.

For example, there seems to have a correlation between low investment in education and the growth of agribusiness in some Brazilian states. Also, in some federated states (e.g., Mato Grosso, Mato Grosso do Sul, Tocantins) there is a relationship between low administrative public efficient at the state level and the presence of agribusiness in these states. This observation was brought to light in the Folha de São Paulo’s Ranking of State Efficiency (Ranking de Eficiência dos Estados – REE).

Read the article

Vale, Helder Ferreira do. (2018). Local-global linkages in the food regime: global history and the internationalization of Brazilian agribusiness. Revista Brasileira de Política Internacional, 61(1), e010. Epub December 10, 2018.https://dx.doi.org/10.1590/0034-7329201800110

About the authors

Helder Ferreira do Vale – Hankuk University of Foreign Studies – Graduate School of International and Area Studies, Dongdaemun – South Korea

Bruno Valim Magalhães – MSc in International Relations – University of Brasilia; Programme Policy and Research – World Food Programme (Centre of Excellence in Brazil), Brasilia – DF.

How to cite this interview

Cite this article as: Editoria, "Interfaces of the Brazilian food system, capital and sovereignty in an internationalizing domestic food regime – an interview with Helder do Vale, by Bruno Magalhães," in Revista Mundorama, 10/02/2019, https://mundorama.net/?p=25141.

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