Beyond ‘family farming versus agribusiness’ dualism: unpacking the complexity of Brazil’s agricultural model

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Future Agricultures Working Paper 138
By Arilson Favareto
November 2016

Agriculture has played a hugely important role in the recent history of Brazil’s economy. The country had a food production deficit until as late as the 1970s, but since the early twenty-first century has been one of the world’s principal exporters and a leader in production technologies adapted to tropical climates. Many researchers – and diplomats – have concluded that this is where Brazil can make its principal contribution to the African continent: supporting agrarian transition and helping to find ways of using local natural resources to build an agriculture with high productivity and improved commercial value. Brazil’s image of success always appears associated with the experience of programmes such as Prodecer and Proálcool, which led to its excellence in the production of soybeans and sugarcane bioethanol respectively. What underlies this image? The official discourse seeks to present the country as a simple case of complementary coexistence between a modern large-scale corporate agriculture segment and another segment based on small family producers. At another extreme of the debate is an alternative view: the discourse of the social movements, with a different reading but based on a similar dualism. The so-called Brazilian model, this discourse argues, is underpinned by an incurable conflict between these two segments, agribusiness being the antithesis of family farming. This paper seeks to show that a much more complex reality exists behind this binary interpretation. On the one hand, where the usual polarised view sets up the figure of agribusiness there are in reality at least three segments of the economy (one, indeed, made up of family producers, and another of companies that can hardly be described as agribusinesses). And where that view, on the other hand, posits ‘family agriculture’ as a single category, there are also three distinct narratives within that notion – each one articulated by a group of interests and organisations with different concepts about the role of agriculture in today’s world, the uses of technology and nature, and relations with the state and the market.