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Economy, agriculture and food security

In 2012, the gross domestic product (GDP) was US$ 2 250 000 million and agriculture accounted for 5 percent of GDP, while in 1992 it accounted for 8 percent. In 2013, total population economically active in agriculture is estimated at 10 211 000 inhabitants (10 percent of economically active population), of which 25 percent is female and 75 percent is male.

In March 1991, the Southern Common Market (MERCOSUL) was created when Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay signed the Treaty of Asunción. The trade pact took effect in January 1995 as a customs union and partial free-trade zone. The aim of MERCOSUL is to allow free movement of capital, labour and services among the four countries. With the introduction in July 1994 of a new currency, the real, the annual inflation rate fell from more than 5 000 percent in 1993-1994 to just over 31 percent in 1994-1995, and all quantitative restrictions to trade were eliminated.

In the 1980s agriculture played a significant role in the country’s economy, but no longer did a single crop dominate in the way sugarcane, coffee or rubber had done at their peaks. Between 1980 and 1992 farm output grew with 38 percent more rapidly than population (26 percent). In the mid-l990s Brazil was the world’s largest producer of coffee and sugar (from sugarcane), second among the cocoa producers, fourth among tobacco growers, and sixth in cotton growing. Under the various programmes undertaken in the last two decades to promote diversification of crops, the production of cereals, including wheat, rice, maize, and particularly the production of soybeans has grown consistently. Forest products, especially rubber (once a vital element in Brazilian exports), as well as Brazil nuts, cashews, waxes and fibres, now come mostly from cultivated plantations and no longer from wild forest trees as in earlier days. Thanks to its wide climatic range, Brazil produces almost every kind of fruit, from tropical varieties in the North (various nuts and avocados) to citrus fruit and grapes in the temperate regions of the South.

Brazil is globally important for both food security and environmental sustainability. It meets most of its domestic demand of agricultural products, plays a major role in the international commodity markets, provides vital environmental services to the world and has a large availability of land, water and top agricultural technology (Government Office for Science, 2010).

The agro-climatic regions with their implications for irrigation are explained below:

  • North: Due to its high rainfall, irrigation development is limited to a small area of lowland rice.
  • Northeast: This region contains the country’s poorest farmers and large numbers of landless people. Many farmers cultivate for subsistence only. Unlike other regions, water resources in most of the Northeast are a severe constraint to agriculture. One major river, the San Francisco river, dominates the region, but the topography generally requires that its water be extracted by pumping. There are a few other perennial rivers, such as the Parnaiba (Piauí/Maranhão) river, and although the government has built regulation structures on some seasonal rivers, many now run dry due to uncontrolled water extraction. Some lowland areas are suitable for flooded rice, mainly in the humid coastal strip. Where water constraints can be overcome, the warm climate favours maize, beans, cotton and sugarcane, as well as year-round multiple fruticulture and horticultural cropping and seed production. Large public-sector irrigation schemes have been constructed and allocated to both entrepreneurs and small-scale settlers, with the aim of overcoming intermittent regional food deficits while creating employment and benefiting the rural poor. Increasing use is being made of localized and sprinkler irrigation in water-scarce areas with fruit trees that are now receiving special attention from the federal and state governments.
  • Southeast: This region is dominated by technically advanced commercial farmers, like in the extreme south. Winter irrigation allows the farmers to crop twice instead of once a year, rotating winter plantings of wheat, peas or beans with rainfed summer crops, which include cotton and sugarcane. There is also supplementary irrigation of summer crops when necessary. Although there is less of the extensive flooded rice typical of the South, the Provarzeas programme made considerable progress also in the Southeast. It encouraged the growth of beans and other crops using supplementary irrigation in winter, in rotation with the main crop of flooded rice in summer.
  • South: Due to frost, there are few opportunities for out-of-season winter irrigation, and although supplementary summer irrigation can save farmers from crop failures in a dry year, on average it gives only a small increase over the rainfed yields of the typical summer crops of the South: maize, beans and soybean. It has a highly developed, commercially-oriented agriculture which both large and small farmers share. As a result, irrigation development in the South has focused mainly on summer flooding of lowlands for rice production (Rio Grande do Sul). Most of this is large-scale and mechanized, and is closely integrated with cattle production, largely for reasons of weed control. Lowlands are typically planted with rice only once every three years and kept under non-irrigated pasture for the other two. From 1978 to 1988 the Government promoted conventional lowland rice irrigation on a smaller scale, under the Provarzeas programme that is now suspended.
  • Centre-west: At its westerly extreme there is little need for irrigation. Further to the east, irrigation is required during a six-month dry season. However, most of the Centre-west is cerrado land, potentially productive if the soil’s natural acidity and low phosphates content are corrected. Since cerrado soil management techniques are newly developed, only over the last decades has much of the region been opened for cultivation, mainly by advanced farmers from further south. Increasing numbers of farmers are taking advantage of the region’s many perennial rivers and streams to complement their rainfed cereal, soybean, bean and cotton production with dry-season irrigated cropping. The large properties and the level land are well suited to centre-pivot and self-propelled irrigation systems, which have expanded in the last years. Free of winter temperature constraints, irrigation in the cerrado can greatly increase the intensity of this vast, recently occupied area.


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       Quote as: FAO. 2016. AQUASTAT website. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Website accessed on [yyyy/mm/dd].
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