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Family Farmers Feed Brazil

The Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE) recently published a report on the country’s agricultural sector. The last report had been published in 1996. The new document supports several points raised by peasant organizations, such as our partner the Via Campesina International, around the critical role of the small scale agriculture to climate justice and hunger. The main points are outlined below.

1. Small scale farming is more efficient than large agribusinesses in terms of land use    According to the newly published report, small-scale agriculture in Brazil produces over 50% of Brazil’s food supplies in much less land than the “modern” agribusinesses.    As family farms demand less land to produce food and employ more people per hectare, small-scale farms are more efficient than the large agricultural operations, controlled by international agribusinesses. The IBGE study highlights these statistics in support: 

  • Small farms employ 75% of rural labor.
  • In relative numbers, family farmers represent 84.4% of the country’s farming sector.
  • From the total of 5,175,489 million farms, 4,367,902 farms in Brazil have land plots with less than 10 hectares. However, small farms occupy only 24.3% of the total farmland. (I will discuss this topic of land distribution more in depth in the next section).

Family farmers exhaust fewer natural resources  and destroy less of the forest reserves and marginal land that often is not appropriate to food production. Working in small plots, family farmers in Brazil are less dependent on oil-based agrochemicals. Their efficient use of resources leaves a smaller environmental foot print on the land.   In comparison, large agribusinesses in Brazil are destroying forest reserves and the exhausting both farmland and aquifers. And, to the detriment of the local food system, these operations are now in full swing with the expansion of agro-fuels plantations.   2. Securing land rights of small scale farmers is critical to feed local communities   Agribusinesses – controlled by a few international corporations – are aggressively extracting resources from Brazilian communities to feed other industrial operations and markets overseas. The agro-fuels plantations will not be used by local communities, as the country has self-sufficient supplies of oil and ethanol. Instead, crops are produced for agro-fuel to be exported to, feed cars in other countries instead of food for hungry Brazilians.   The growth of new industrial plantations is in fact a direct threat to small scale farmers and indigenous communities because of its effects on land distribution. The expansion of agro-fuels prevents local communities from producing food and sustaining themselves, because more and more land is concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer big land owners. IBGE’s report indicates that over three quarters, or 75.7%, of all farmland of Brazil is already taken by large operations.    The numbers presented in the IBGE’s report shows that Brazil currently has a higher percentage of unequal distribution of land than Namibia. Brazil’s Gini index has increased by 16% from data collected in 1996. The Gini index quantifies land distribution among the population. A Gini index near 1 means that only 1 person would own all the land. Today, Brazil has a Gini index of 0.872, indicating extremely high concentrations of land ownership.   3. Small scale farmers are responsible for a large percentage of food production in Brazil   Brazil’ small scale agriculture is producing food to feed millions of Brazilians, a country with more than 190 million people.   The study shows that family farmers are responsible for: 87% of the total production of cassava; 70% of the national production of beans; 46% of all corn produced in Brazil; 38% of Brazilian coffee; 34% of the national production of rice; 58% of the production of milk; 59% of all pigs raised in the country; 50% of the poultry production; 30% of the animal protein originated from cattle herds; 21% of Brazil’s wheat production; and 16% of soybeans, a crop often associated with large agribusinesses.   The current report demonstrates that despite unfavorable conditions for small-scale farmers, Brazil’s food security depends on the work of rural families on their land.   4. Family farming is responsible for a considerable portion of the national revenue from agriculture and jobs   Even though small scale farming occupies less than one quarter of the total farmland, it is responsible for 38% of the national revenues from the agricultural sector, or $25.2 billion.   For a country with an unemployment rate over 15%, Brazil could address the issue of high unemployment by increasing the number of agrarian reform settlements. Currently, small scale farms in Brazil alone employ 12.3 million workers.