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Opinion: Brazil shows Argentina how to farm

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Brazilians like to think that God shares their nationality. If true, it would explain their near miracles in farming.

The revolution which raised agricultural shipments to a record $71.8bn last year - more than one-third of the nation's exports – shows little sign of fading.

Indeed, a glance at Wednesday's report from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development shows that huge chunks of the farm commodities trade are being painted Brazilian shades of green, yellow and blue.

Top banana

Sure, Brazil is never going to be a breadbasket. Annual wheat production is, at 5-6m tonnes, a crumb in global terms.

But the country is to become the globe's vegetable oil bottle, as the top-ranking oilseed exporter by 2018, the FAO and OECD believe. It may be on course to be the world's milkman too, becoming a force in milk powder.

And this besides strengthening its claim to be the world's sugarbowl, with exports set to soar 36% over the decade propelling "exports to new heights", let alone sharpening its edge as the top-ranking international meat larder. Brazil's meat exports will rise by 25%, giving it a one-third share of the global market.

Divine blessings?

The surprise in all this may not be Brazil's waxing farm pre-eminence.

Whether or not thanks to help from above, the country has plenty of land, with some estimates saying it could expand plantings by 200m acres, an area bigger than France or Pakistan. (And that's without torching more rainforest.)

It has plenty of labour too. Indeed, broad agriculture, including processing, employs more than one third of Brazil's workforce.

Political difference

What is noteworthy, however, is that Argentina isn't nipping at its neighbour's heels.

It too has many of Brazil's blessings, such as vast underutilised spaces and a growing population to put into agricultural work. It has a richer farming history too.

But what is has not had, for years, is a supportive government - compare the countries' responses to the credit crunch. Brazil stuck its hand in its pocket to provide $41bn to farmers and processors to replace credit lines. Argentina meanwhile, fought to retain hefty tariffs on crop exports.

Indeed, Argentina's signature mention in the FAO-OECD report is for "conflicts over government policies", which are prompting farmers to hoard crops, leaving processors short.

Past vs future

Sure, drought hasn't done Argentina any favours, making deep cuts in particular into soybean harvests.

But the country was slipping behind in many major crops, such as corn, and slipped off the cotton map altogether, long before its land got parched. That was down to political help drying up.

Brazil has proven it no longer deserves the tag of the country that would forever squander its bright prospects.

Argentina has yet to show its farming glory days aren't behind it.

By Mike Verdin

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