In defense of a program of national salvation – II

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Correct policies directed at agribusiness

To begin with, we need to correct both the policies to support family farming and the agrarian reform policy. And correct policies directed at agribusiness. Let's start with the latter.

There are many policies to support agribusiness, but we will only deal with the most relevant ones. Facilitated and subsidized credit, in addition to the many renegotiation operations (including forgiveness) of agribusiness debts, involved hundreds of billions of reais in the last 30 years. Secondly, tax exemptions on inputs (fertilizers, pesticides, others) represent an impressive tax waiver that is around 6 billion per year. Tax reductions on products or on the ITR follow. In addition, agribusiness benefits from not charging penalties for environmental crimes or the use of slave labor, which, admittedly, is not generalized, but is more important than admitted. All of this will have to be annulled in a policy to convert Brazilian agriculture towards sustainability.

It will be necessary to review the entire pesticide release policy that made Brazil the paradise of banned products worldwide. Reducing the use of pesticides is fundamental in the short term due to the environmental impact and the health of workers, consumers and rural communities resulting from the use of these products, particularly in the form of aerial fumigation. You see, this is nothing more than a rationalization advocated by the FAO and it has nothing radical, except for our very backward agribusiness. Accelerating the replacement of pesticides by biological controls is also a recommendation from the most advanced science, including EMBRAPA. However, it is worth noting that systems based on large monocultures are intrinsically vulnerable to attacks by pests, diseases, fungi, mites, etc.

All measures proposed so far only reduce the damage, but do not solve the problem. Only the diversification of agroecosystems will allow the reduction of pest and disease attacks and, the greater this diversification, the greater the efficiency of non-chemical controls. In any case, it is good to remember that agriculture is an activity that alters a natural environment and that, therefore, it will always provoke some reaction from the affected flora and fauna.

The most advanced agroecological systems, including those of the agrosilvopastoral type, are those that least alter natural systems and, therefore, are the ones that demand less use of control products, which should all be biological. Agribusiness systems, on the other hand, are characterized by destroying the natural systems where they are installed, causing an immense disturbance in the habitat and the multiplication of pests and invaders, attacking the environmental homogeneity of monocultures on a large scale.

Still dealing with policies aimed at agribusiness, I defend the necessary scientific review of the release of the use of transgenic varieties. As they were released ignoring the scientific debate and adopting a policy of systematic approval of each species/variety requested by biotechnology companies, it will be necessary to change the composition and functioning of the National Technical Commission on Biosafety (CTNBio). It will not be necessary to change the biosafety law, although this is desirable, but to define infra-legal norms (that is, defined at the administrative level) on the composition, indication and rules of conflict of interests, and the obligation to explain the reasons for the votes of the participating scientists.

With regard to the composition, it will be necessary to respect the letter of the law that says that those indicated to participate in the commission must be specialists in biosafety. Nowadays, the scientists who participate in CTNBio are specialists in biotechnology, but they do not have expertise in biosafety. The biosafety law defines that decisions on the release of transgenics must be made by a simple majority of all members present. Originally the regulation of the law charged 2/3 of the votes and this can be restored.

But the most important element to be instituted is the way of voting. CTNBio has 4 groups of scientists in its structure: specialists in risks to animal health, plant health, human health and the environment. Each group analyzes the risks in its area of ​​expertise, but when it comes to voting on a release, everyone gets mixed up. That is, it is possible that all, or the majority of scientists from one of the commissions specializing in a specific biosafety risk, end up in a minority in a plenary session, where other scientists from other commissions do not see problems in their areas. If this happens, the transgenic in question may be approved, which is total nonsense.

The transgenic proposed and under analysis would have to be approved by each of the thematic commissions and not by a majority vote of the group. It is the same as a medical board evaluating a patient and the specialists in cardiology, urology and pulmonology saying that the patient is doing very well in their field and the specialists in gastroenterology voting that he is dying of stomach cancer and, in the final balance, the patient was discharged because the majority did not see any problems.

To end the review of policies aimed at agribusiness, it is necessary to end the total impunity of this sector with regard to environmental crimes, in particular deforestation and burning. The collection of past crimes, which is being rolled over with the complacency of the authorities, must end and the account paid off. And the siege against deforesters and arsonists has to be tightened from now on, so that we can reach zero deforestation as quickly as possible. Many of these agribusiness lords owe the law the obligation to recompose the legal reserve areas and this obligation will have to be respected.

But what can be done to increase food production, which will certainly not be of interest to the agribusiness world? How to increase the supply of rice by 50% and beans by 200%, for example? And what to do to expand the supply of fruits and vegetables? The production of meat and eggs has enough volume to pay for the domestic market with leftovers, the question is price. But Brazil needs to export and its available rural area is a boon, if used well.

The conversion to agroecology in the area of ​​beef production, for example, is something technically already well mastered and allows for a more rational use of the soil with a much higher meat production per hectare than in conventional grazing systems and much greater sustainability than in stabled intensive rearing systems. It would be possible, including incorporating other approaches such as silvopastoral systems, to bring all of our beef production to the domestic market and with strong exportable surpluses even with surcharges for being an organic and environmentally correct product.

The whole problem for the agroecological conversion of our agriculture lies in our land structure and the loss of space in family farming. As I said before, despite receiving support from public policies for the first time in our history since the mid-FHC government, family farming has receded in size, losing between 2006 and 2017 about 10% of its components (a little over 400 farming families). On the other hand, despite public support, poverty rates among family farmers, especially in the North and Northeast regions (where 60% of this category is found) remain high and they are the main base of social programs such as Bolsa Família.

This situation has an explanation linked to the historical process of land concentration in the country. The large estates and agribusiness appropriated the best land in the ecosystems most suitable for agricultural production. The worst lands in the most fragile and vulnerable ecosystems, more subject to droughts and floods, are left for family farming, with the exception of specific exceptions located in the southern region. These conditions of access to natural resources, combined with the lack of financial resources to invest in production and access to remunerative markets, largely explain the impoverishment of family farming.

The other factor is the technological type. The traditional systems of traditional agriculture are of low productivity and depend on a reasonable availability of land so as not to deplete the natural fertility of the soil. With the fragmentation of properties, this availability disappeared and the traditional systems gradually collapsed. But, even when public policies facilitated credit, as in the governments of FHC, Lula and Dilma, the orientation of the use of resources favored the application of conventional techniques employed by agribusiness and the operation did not work out, except in cases where the conditions environmental and natural resources have reduced the risk margins of investments. Even with agricultural insurance programs instituted by these governments, the cost of these operations was very high due to the inadequacy of the technical proposal.

This leads us to the discussion of the promotion of agroecology as a State policy. In the long term, the adoption of agroecology will require a much larger producer base than currently exists. It should, in the long term, replace the residual large estates and agribusiness that today occupy close to 200 million hectares, in addition to recovering for production nearly 40 million hectares of degraded land. Today there are 3,9 million family farmers and they have, on average, less than 6 hectares each. That is, close to 23 million hectares. But these areas are known to be too small for the possibilities and productive needs of a peasant family.

What is the ideal size for a property owned by an agroecological family farmer? This study has never been done, so the data that follows are speculations based on the author's experience. Considering that in all agroecological production systems there will be an area of ​​native vegetation, varying between 20 and 50% of the property's area, depending on the biome where it is located, and that another 10 to 20% will be occupied by native vegetation managed in a to collaborate with production, cultivated and/or pasture and/or forest areas will occupy between 30 and 70% of the property's area.

In my opinion, given the variable degree of diversity of the natural ecosystems where these properties will be inserted and which will define the degree of complexity of the agroecological systems adopted, the area manageable by the family should be between 5 and 10 hectares. This takes us, rounding up, to properties with dimensions between 15 and 35 hectares, depending on the ecosystem where it is inserted. Roughly speaking, the average area of ​​a family farming property would be 25 hectares nationwide. To conclude this speculation, just divide the total area available for production, estimated at 300 million hectares, by the size of this estimated average area and we will need 12 million farmers, more than 4 times those that exist today. Just for information: calculations made by an American university arrived at a much more impressive number: It would take 40 million family farmers to replace US agribusiness and maintain agricultural production in that country at today's levels, but using organic farming techniques.

There are differences in the method used in the calculation. The Americans did not envisage areas of environmental reserve or native vegetation integrated into the management of the property. On the other hand, the organic production systems that served as the basis for the productivity indices used in the study were less performing than the ones I used for the Brazilian case. Finally, the productive area in the United States is much larger than ours.

Going from 3,8 million to 12 million peasant families will be a herculean task and will require an agrarian reform with a much more revolutionary approach than the limited and cautious models used so far in Brazil. At the beginning of the Dilma government, the president of INCRA, Celso Lacerda, promoted a study, diagnosing the agrarian reform that had been underway since the Itamar government. The conclusion (never published) was that agrarian reform was a fiasco. The distributed lands were in the most delicate ecosystems, in the worst lands. The size of the lots was insufficient for the needs of the families. Technical assistance was rare and almost always directed towards the use of chemical fertilizers, seeds improved by companies and pesticides, expensive and risky technologies in the conditions of these farmers. Credit was scarce and difficult to access. The result was a strong evasion, the entry of new families irregularly or the purchase of lots by neighbors, initiating a process of land reconcentration.

A new agrarian reform will depend not only on a much more active land expropriation movement than in the past, immediately affecting all large landowners in default with the State or debtors of environmental fines. The properties where slave labor was or is detected must be summarily expropriated. And the productivity indexes that indicate, according to the legislation, the correct use of the land, will have to be updated since they are the same since the 1980s and completely outdated. With this update, it will be possible to carry out expropriations based on the law, currently held back by very low productivity rates. Currently, for example, it is not possible to expropriate a large estate with one head of cattle per square kilometer (100 ha), when even conventional grazing methods allow one head per hectare and agroecological methods, such as Voisin, allow the creation of three heads per hectare.

The biggest problem (besides the cost) in setting the pace of expropriations and settlements will be the State's ability to promote agroecological production systems in a wide variety of agroecosystems. Agroecology does not work like a cake recipe, where standardized and uniform techniques are applied in a large number of situations. Technical assistance for the formulation of agroecological systems has to be done on a case-by-case basis and demands qualified training from advisors. Training in agroecology techniques and, even more, in methods of promoting agroecological development, is not part of the curriculum of both agrarian universities and technical schools. There are some specialization courses in several universities, but they are still limited both in their technical content and in the part that deals with participatory approaches to promoting development, until now almost strictly the domain of agroecology non-governmental organizations operating in the network known as ANA – National Articulation of Agroecology.

In order to prepare for the process of agrarian reform and the promotion of agroecological development, it will be necessary to create spaces for training and research both at the technical medium and university levels. There is already a base in many technical schools and universities that can be supported and streamlined while discussing curricula and pedagogy to be adopted in agricultural science courses wholly focused on agroecology. All of this takes time and makes the process of agroecological conversion of Brazilian agriculture slow in its early years.

The first step to support this movement must be to strengthen and expand the centers of agroecological farmers that already exist throughout the country, creating credit programs adapted to the processes of agroecological transition, financing the technical assistance entities already in operation and resuming the programs food purchases financed by the government (PAA), with priority given to agroecological production. We are talking about consolidating close to 50 thousand family farmers and promoting the expansion of the groups they are part of, taking the numbers to 200 thousand in four years, as proposed in PLANAPO, approved by President Dilma. These nuclei will be the basis on which agroecological development processes will multiply in the future, leading to an exponential growth of those involved in sustainable agroecological production. The systematization and evaluation of the experiences of this pioneering group will be the technical and methodological basis of a new school of rural development.

While the movement to convert agriculture to an agroecological approach develops, the great mass of family producers must be guided by government credit programs and public purchases for the production of basic foodstuffs. This implies creating favorable conditions for farmers to dedicate themselves to these products and not to the duo of commodities Soy corn. A policy of export taxes and attractive prices will have to be formulated. It is a temporary solution because what producers can do right away is to adopt agribusiness techniques.

In the short term, there will not be enough accumulation of experience and technical staff to convert this production to agroecology immediately. Some techniques of universal use could be promoted, such as the use of organic compost whose production could be massified from the treatment of sewage sludge and organic waste from urban areas. An initiative involving mayors, state governors and the federal government could quickly supply family farmers with a quality fertilizer without negative environmental impacts. Despite the food production of the vast majority of farmers still not being able to adopt the set of agroecology techniques, it is better for them to turn to food production, even with unsustainable long-term conventional methods than to remain dependent on food imports. The conversion will come in the medium term.

At this point, it is important to highlight the radical change in the profile of national development embedded in the proposal to replace large-scale agribusiness with agroecological family farming. By taking at least 10 million families to settle in agrarian reform areas, the effect on employment and on the spatial distribution of the population will be enormous. It is also necessary to remember that this massive repeasantization of the rural space will be accompanied by the displacement of other workers, since it will mean an increase in the demand for varied services in the small towns and villages that will be formed. In a country with a structural employment problem in urban areas, this proposal is not a problem, but a solution.

However, we have to learn from the rather less than positive experiences of the agrarian reforms promoted in the last 20 years. To attract idle labor to the countryside will take more than what has been done so far. It is not enough to hand over land to a family, but it will be necessary to accompany this step by offering interesting living conditions (housing, energy, water, sanitation, communication, health, transport, education and leisure) and work (knowledge in agroecology, inputs, equipment, silos, water infrastructure, warehouses and silos, seedlings and animals). Support for the production process and social organization will be fundamental, above all to allow the socialization of families who choose to live on the properties.

Indirectly, this movement to relocate the population and labor will benefit the population and workers of the cities that will be deflated by this migration in the reverse direction of the history of the last 70 years. The mass of recent migrants, many of them displaced against their will due to the appalling conditions of life in the countryside, is the first focus of attraction for repeasantization.

Possibly, the first movement back to the countryside will come about through investment in a massive reforestation program and the prevention of deforestation and fires. We will deal with this proposal, which is articulated with that of agrarian reform, in terms of environmental problems.

*Jean Marc von der Weid is a former president of the UNE (1969-71). Founder of the non-governmental organization Family Agriculture and Agroecology (ASTA).

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