Kate Lee - New and emerging technologies
I am 28 years old and I worked for the UK farming unions and the National Pig Association in Brussels from September 2006 until September 2012. Whilst this was a very cosmopolitan life I lived and breathed agriculture every day in trying to communicate the needs and aspirations of UK farmers to policy makers.
Key policies I worked included organic food, biotechnology, cloning, food labelling and climate change. I also worked with the EU Commission, Member State Governments and the European Parliament at a crucial time when welfare laws were coming into force on farm animals such as laying hens and pigs.
I had a joyful upbringing in Cheshire, I have a twin sister Jenny and a younger sister Amy who work in photography and fashion. I love languages and speak French, Spanish, Portuguese and I am learning Danish. Otherwise in my spare time I enjoy hiking, running half marathons (I could never do a full one!) and touch rugby. I am also partial to a bit of singing and dancing!
Brazil’s biodiverse cropland is of global importance
Over the past two weeks I have ventured into Brazil’s farmland - hours away from the bright lights, beach gymnastics and samba dancing of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo.
Minas Gerais and Mato Grosso, far-flung from the country’s iconic cities, are ‘cerrado’ or savannah states that lie at the heart of Brazil’s most industrious crop land.
As a result, they hold central economic importance – in 2013 the Brazilian Ministry of Agriculture hopes for a record BR 305,3 billion gross value in grain production, as well as soybean production to surpass that of the USA for the first time, putting Brazil in number one position.
Minas Gerais or ‘Minas’ as the locals like to call it, is the state with the supposedly smaller holdings. This means farms of 2000 or 3000 hectares. It means cattle herds of 2000. It means on-farm seed processing units and employment for large percentages of village populations.
Yet this was not always the case. Technology has transformed the cerrado from unproductive agricultural land 30 years ago, to producing 70% of Brazil’s farm output today, all of this done without deforestation of the Amazon rainforest.
Nevertheless, after the Amazon, this area of land is the major focal point of many of Brazil’s environmental laws.
Agreed in September 2012, the new forest code (‘Código Florestal’) reinforces obligations for all farms in Brazil to set aside 20-80% of their land for nature preservation.
That’s just a start. There are many more rules regulating land use, including obligations for farmers to replant land that has been historically degraded.
And just like in Europe, there are pollution licenses to buy, slurry storage requirements to fulfil for livestock farmers and margins of land to be left free around water sources.
Within thirty minutes of arrival on one of the huge crop farms (mostly GM soy and corn), I had seen rare owls endemic to the cerrado and a family of emu flocking through the crops looking like something out of Jurassic Park.
Later I saw what the farmer told me was ‘tatu’ (armadillo) trotting around. Even with the gaps in understanding with my Portuguese I could see how excited and proud he was, telling me that there are also wolves and wild boars living there.
There is no doubt that the food producers in these areas have an incredible responsibility to protect the nature around them and that research and guidance should be top priorities. It is right and important for the Brazilian government to take the protection of this paradise seriously.
Yet many questions were raised in my mind about the sense of creating an arbitrary percentage of land to be put aside, without thinking about what that land is best used for.
Likewise there seems little recognition for the many, targeted, environmental practices that farmers carry out alongside the law. The main thing that I am hearing so far is that some farmers feel the laws are not based on agronomic common sense and are therefore ‘criminalised’ for producing food. And from what I read previously not just in the Brazilian press, but internationally, I can see why they think this is true.
By the time my Nuffield report is due in July I expect merely to have scratched the surface on these important issues. Nevertheless, I am looking forward to discussions with policy makers in Brazil’s capital city, Brasilia, this week.
SOURCES: www.economist.com; www.agricultura.gov.br