As we head into a new year, U.S. agriculture faces 2013 filled with opportunities for growth and prosperity, but still hand-cuffed by a lack of government support and a plethora of public misunderstanding.
We in the agriculture media do a splendid job of telling our story to ourselves, but an abysmal job of telling it to those not involved in agriculture. Likewise, grower associations and even individual farmers do a poor job of telling their success stories to those outside the agriculture industry.
Collectively, we are equally inept at choosing, supporting and most of all electing political leaders who will help remove the chains of government regulations and provide needed incentives for agriculture as a whole to reach its immense potential in the United States.
The U.S. is still considered the breadbasket of the world by many, but in recent years we have been sharing that title with Brazil, as the grain industry there grows bigger and bigger. The same is true with poultry and other livestock enterprises.
Perhaps we should take a look at our neighbors to the South — as in South America, in particular in Brazil, for some valuable lessons on how to improve our plight via hard-nosed business and political practices — and simply by doing the right thing.
Take the case of Katia Abreu, a Brazilian politician, farmer and outspoken advocate of modern agriculture throughout the world.
In 1987 Abreu lived on a large Brazilian farm with her husband and her world was consumed by raising two small children and eagerly awaiting the arrival of a third. Other than being married to a successful farmer, she knew very little about agriculture.
Today, she is a Brazilian senator from the state of Tocantins. She is the president of CNA — Confederation of Agriculture and Livestock of Brazil, an entity that brings together 27 state federations, farm unions and more than 1 million producers.
And, she is bullish, to say the least, about agriculture. In defending Brazil’s expansion of agriculture into the Amazon Basin, she says, “We are not ashamed of anything. What’s important is that Brazil increase food production.”
Rather than making idle boasts, she comes well armed with facts and is ready to unload on those who oppose the growth of Brazilian agriculture. She is the first woman in the leadership of Brazilian Agro-business, a sector that represents 24 percent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), it employees 37 percent of the work force and generates 36 percent of Brazil’s exportations.
She staunchly defends the restructuring of the Brazilian rural economy and its role in helping the government guarantee the security of income to Brazilian producers.
Abreu is an equally ardent advocate for the strengthening of free enterprise in Brazil. She considers indispensable the development in Brazil an infrastructure for transport, especially in ports and waterways. The construction of the country for opportunities for everyone, in her evaluation, makes for a strong market economy and for more investment in education.
Abreu is not without her opponents, especially over environmental issues related to deforestation of the Amazon River Basin. But, so far, she has steadfastly refused to back down, claiming technology will allow Brazil to increase production without significantly expanding farm acreage.
Among her philosophical adversaries is Christian Poirer, Brazilian head of the California-based Amazon Watch. Of her mission to increase agricultural productivity and farmer profitability, he says, “It doesn’t jibe with what this landowning bloc represents, which is the expansion of the frontier.”
The bitter fight over land was particularly pitched last year as environmentalists and Big Agro tussled over the Forest Code, a forest-protection law that was enacted in October. Farmers and ranchers fought hard to scrap requirements that obligated farmers to maintain a large forest cover on farms in the Amazon.
If that sounds alarmingly like many of the issues faced by U.S. growers, like expansion of the Chesapeake Bay Restoration to other bodies of water in the United States, it is. Unlike the political counterpunches thrown by farm groups supporting Chesapeake Bay area farmers, Abreu and her powerful agriculture lobby go straight for the throat and continue to pump renewed life into the country’s agriculture economy.
Abreu insists Brazilian farmers should be commended, not demonized. Big Agro has transformed this country into a bread-basket of the world, she says, one that’s poised to feed billions. Not just idle political rhetoric, considering Brazil now has the world’s biggest commercial herd of beef and is the No. 1 exporter of soybeans, orange juice, coffee and poultry.
On visits to Washington, China and Europe, she spars with university students, lobbies for acceptance of Brazil’s genetically modified crops and appeals to investors. She has also built a close working relationship with one of the world’s most influential women, Brazil’s popular left-of-center president, Dilma Rousseff.
Rouseff, a socialist, who was jailed for several years for anti-government activities, has her share of critics, too. Abreu apparently works equally as well with Rouseff as she did former Brazilian President Luiz Anacio Lula.
Remember back in 1987 Katia Abreu knew virtually nothing about agriculture, or politics, or world economics or environmental groups. She was a mother and an expecting mother in that year — the year her young husband died in an airplane crash.
Everyone, family, friends — everyone urged her to sell the farm. “It wasn’t the right thing to do for my children or my late husband,” she says. So, she hired a farm manager and immersed herself into learning agriculture, quickly learning that politics plays a vital role.
So, in addition to being one of the single most powerful leaders in global agriculture, Katia Abreu is committed to doing the right thing.
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