agricultural policy



Ministry of family farming or ministry of agribusiness?


This text is more than an analysis of public policies. It is intended to be an action proposal for the Ministry of Agrarian Development (MDA). Laypeople may find it too specialized, but I hope you read it to the end to understand how the objectives, methods and costs of a government program are defined. The intention is to propose something that fits within the ministry's current budget and, at the same time, points to permanent and long-term policies for the State.

Policies to promote the development of family farming

Public policies to support the development of family farming are recent, beginning under the government of Fernando Henrique Cardoso, with the creation of the Family Farming Support Program (PRONAF) and the Ministry of Agrarian Development (MDA) in the 1990s.

Development support policies adopted in popular governments followed the same pattern established in FHC's government, only seeking a greater range in the number of beneficiaries.

More credit was distributed with more subsidies, state (EMATER) and private (NGOs) rural extension was financed, although covering a maximum of 18% of the potential public, with half of it concentrated in the southern region. A minimum price program and another crop insurance program were created, aiming to guarantee the ability to pay debts assumed with PRONAF credit in the event of problems with production or the market. Even so, farmers' debt was heavy and, despite several amnesties and renegotiations of these debts, many defaulted and abandoned their production and properties.

The orientation of these policies followed the modernization paradigm adopted by agribusiness since the times of the military and by a minority of family farmers since the times of FHC. This orientation, although popular governments tried to prioritize food crops, ended up leading the most capitalized family farmers (the main beneficiaries of the policies) to the production of commodities – soybeans, corn and cattle. Absolute production for the domestic market stagnated, especially in popular consumption products, with constant drops in per capita production, with strong effects on food costs in the country and, consequently, an increase in food insecurity and the adoption of cheaper diets. with worse nutritional content.

New development paradigm?

The new Lula government seemed to have understood that the model promoted by popular governments was a mistake that led not only to the aforementioned reduction in food supply but also to a significant decrease in the number of family farmers, with 800 thousand of them leaving the countryside, more than double of those settled between the 2006 and 2017 censuses. The negative balance was 400 thousand farmers, reversing the trend towards expansion seen between the two previous censuses.

It was not possible to know whether these numbers and this diagnosis were the basis for the change of focus declared by the Transition Group between the energúmeno government and the Lula government. But it is a surprising fact that the Transition Group declared that the new government's priority was the promotion of agroecology, even though it did not define how current policies would be reformed to adjust to this new paradigm.

Unfortunately, between intention and gesture, the government simply repeated, in form and content, previous policies. Credit remains mainly aimed at commodities and concentrated in a minority of capitalized farmers in the southern region, technical assistance had only two calls for projects (with the same formatting mistakes as in the past), insurance continues to be exclusive to conventional production. Support for agroecology was limited to small programs with few resources and without a format adapted to the peculiarities of the agroecological transition.

Like Ministry of Agrarian Development spent your resources?

In 2023, the government spent 9 billion reais to pay the equalization of interest on subsidized credit, by far the most important item in the spreadsheet of MDA's final activities. ATER received less than 500 million reais to finance three years of projects. The Food Acquisition Program raised 750 million reais (250 million were initially budgeted) for the year 2023 and benefited 250 thousand farmers, with the number of those who delivered organic or agroecological food being a small fraction of this total.

A “productive backyard” program was launched with much fanfare at Marcha das Margaridas, aimed at 100 women producers in the areas around their homes. 100 million reais were budgeted to be invested over four years. The program is potentially interesting, but clearly under-budgeted, as experiences in the northeast region point to much greater needs to guarantee water security for production, in addition to other infrastructure.

Looking more broadly, it appears that the Ministry of Agrarian Development is acting erratically, without well-defined goals and objectives and without a re-discussion of the format of the policies that are being applied.

The promotion of agroecology requires a special program

I do not believe that the Ministry of Agrarian Development has any idea of ​​the difficulties and limitations in introducing policies in favor of agroecology. Since I learned about the Transition Group's resolutions, I have repeated that there are no immediate conditions for the widespread adoption of policies aimed at agroecology, even if they are correctly adapted to the conditions of this production system.

It is more prudent to adopt a special program for agroecological development and give it the highest possible priority, without trying to make all Pronaf credit and all rural extension supported by the government subordinate to this proposal. What I propose in this text is to formulate a program for agroecology, indicating its possible size, goals, objectives and costs. To repeat, what I propose is a program and not a set of universal policies to be adopted by the Ministry of Agrarian Development.

What are the objectives and goals for this program?

To begin with, it is important to define the main objective of the Ministry of Agrarian Development's action and the priority public to benefit. At the moment, it can be said that the actions of the Ministry of Agrarian Development serve, above all, to promote conventional production of export commodities. With this objective, the target audience is the most capitalized farmers, pejoratively called agribusiness. There are, at most, 500 thousand families, strongly centralized in the south and (on a much smaller scale) southeast region. It is for these that the greatest amount of resources is being allocated.

And what should be the central objective of the Ministry of Agrarian Development? The production of food to face or help face hunger, malnutrition and malnutrition that affect nearly 130 million Brazilians. Commodity production cannot continue to be the center of public policy for family farming.

As for the target audience of the ministerial action, the analysis needs to be refined.

Of the 3,9 million farming families, around 1,5 million are made up of the minifundista category, with up to 5 hectares of land available for crops and livestock. The poorest among these, around 1,2 million, are Bolsa Família beneficiaries and are affected by severe food insecurity in most cases. A food self-sufficiency program aimed at this audience should be this ministry's priority.

What are the environmental, social and economic conditions of this publicblico?

A program of this nature requires knowledge of the problems and restrictions of the target audience, so that they can define the measures to be taken to achieve the defined objectives.

The vast majority of these 1,5 million families are found in the northeast and north regions, but pockets of poverty exist in all other regions, Southeast, South and Central-West. Northeastern families are mainly found in the semi-arid region, suffering from irregular and insufficient water supply, few financial resources, poor and degraded soils. In other regions, the problem of water supply is less pronounced, but growing, given the generalization of the effects of global warming. Worn lands and sloping terrain are also common.

Traditional backyards

In the distribution of responsibilities among family members, the (complementary) production for household consumption is in the hands of women, with or without the help of their children, especially the older ones. These productive subsystems are known in the Northeast as “around the house”. In other places, the name adopted in the Ministry of Agrarian Development program is also used, “productive backyards”.

These production subsystems are intended for self-supply, with the sale of occasional surpluses, in the most advanced cases. There are numerous productive designs in this subsystem, depending on the available area, material and human resources and women's choices. Backyards rarely exceed 1/5 of a hectare and can be as small as 100 square meters. Traditionally, it consists of a vegetable garden (sometimes suspended on a girau to avoid free-ranging dogs, chickens and goats) with spices, small chicken farms, some fruit trees and, in larger spaces, small gardens. When water resources are available, these plants are watered for greater production security. There is no use of chemical inputs and fertilization is limited to covering the soil with crop residues.

The objective is to supplement the family's supply, but these traditional backyards rarely achieve significant self-supply in quantity and quality. The lack of variety in the diet is the keynote of these systems. Vegetables are little known and are limited to onions, jiló, gherkins, coriander and garlic. Eggs and birds are its biggest contribution. Goats are not part of this system due to the difficulty of controlling the animals and the lack of facilities to contain them. Pigs or sheep may appear, in “rope” creations or small enclosures. Fruit bowls have little diversity, but they are important contributions to the family diet.

This group has limited financial resources and the existing ones are used primarily on larger farms under the responsibility of men. As already noted, the majority depend on Bolsa Família and school meals to improve the nutrition of adults and children.

Agroecological backyards

The experiences of NGOs promoting agroecology in the northeastern region are very successful and disseminated throughout all states and can serve as a basis for the program. In them, technicians relied on women's usual practices and introduced water infrastructures of various types and the methods and practices of agroecology. This allowed the expansion of the variety of products in order to guarantee correct nutrition from a nutritional point of view and the necessary quantities for the whole family. These innovations resulted in the presentation and access of women to products they were unfamiliar with, such as vegetables and legumes. Without food and cooking education, the eating pattern does not progress and only increases the volume consumed from a nutrient-poor diet.

Experiments in agroecological backyards have made it possible to increase the area explored, intensifying and diversifying the vegetable gardens, fencing off grazing spaces for birds, sheep and pigs and even a possible dairy cow, building chicken coops, pig pens and corrals. The orchards were expanded and diversified in order to produce fruit throughout the year. Small farms were introduced or expanded and diversified. The backyard area expanded to a quarter and up to half a hectare, depending on the availability of labor and space.

Water infrastructures are fundamental.

Agroecology practices, among this very needy public, face some limitations. Firstly, the availability of water is an imperative for the success of the initiative. Depending on rainfall in quantity and at the right time, in the context of growing climate instability (in general and in particular in the semi-arid region) is courting failure. To address this basic problem, NGOs have identified several rainwater harvesting infrastructures for different purposes.

For human consumption, better quality water is required and, to this end, low-cost cisterns of appropriate dimensions were built to guarantee water for drinking and cooking throughout the year.

For the consumption of animals raised “around the house” (chickens, pigs, sheep and goats and even the occasional dairy cow), trench-barreiros are used, which allow water to be accumulated in larger quantities, but of less demanding quality. .

To irrigate vegetable gardens and small plots of corn, beans and cassava and fruit plants, a greater quantity of water is needed, also without greater purity requirements. Various water infrastructures are used, such as underground dams, small clay pits and wells (where it is possible to find non-brackish water) and, on a larger scale, the sidewalk cisterns developed by Embrapa Semiárido.

The options for underground dams and mudflats depend on environmental conditions (soils, relief and the presence of intermittent stream beds, which are dry for most of the year). The boardwalk cistern can be used under any circumstances, although it is more expensive. All of these infrastructures require, to a greater or lesser extent, water distribution and pumping equipment, generally low cost and manual. These different water infrastructures make it possible to expand the area of ​​backyards, with a maximum of half to one hectare of “wet land”.

Agroecology practices do not use chemical fertilizers and seek to encourage the production of organic compost from manure from animals raised in this system. However, for this to be possible, other infrastructures are needed to shelter the livestock and concentrate the manure. Often the manure available is insufficient, and it becomes necessary to purchase manure from other producers. Pest controls, which may be necessary despite the diversity of crops minimizing them, are carried out with a variety of homemade syrups, using natural products.

The size of the agroecological backyards will depend on the soil and relief conditions around the house and the availability of labor to manage them. There is a labor cost in implementing the system, with the construction of fences isolating the backyards and separating the subsystems, in the construction of shelters for the animals, in the construction of water infrastructures, in the formation of the vegetable gardens, much larger than the traditional practices, in the sowing of pastures, in the planting of fruit trees and those used for the production of firewood and charcoal.

This workforce will not only come from women and even with the collaboration of men it may not be enough, requiring payment for external services or collective work and supportive community groups. Managing the system is the responsibility of women, with the occasional help from teenagers and children.

These highly diversified systems with half an irrigated hectare make it possible to feed a family of four with adequate nutritional quantity and quality and also have small surpluses that can be placed in community or district fairs or in the neighborhood. They are, without a shadow of a doubt, an excellent solution to guarantee food security for the families that use them. The question is more about how to generalize these experiences, which number in the thousands in the northeast region.

How to disseminate agroecological farms on a large scale?

Although the scheme presented seems simple and capable of being copied, there are multiple variations in each case or home. It will be necessary to adapt the proposal to the conditions of each family and each backyard, including each woman's decisions about what to plant and raise, based on her preferences, both food and type of work. There are those who don't like dealing with animals, for example. But practices show that, in general, women tend to incorporate all the proposed subsystems, but in very different proportions.

This variability requires choices to be made regarding what to produce, in what dimensions, where and how to manage the subsystems and the system as a whole. And there is learning to be done, involving agroecology techniques such as the combination of crops and their succession, the production of organic compost, biological controls, pruning, planting times, seed production and more.

Let us also remember that the introduction of various species of vegetables into intensive gardens, many unknown to women, not only requires knowledge about management but also about the importance of each one for nutrition and ways to transform them into tasty foods. And there is still a frequent demand for techniques for preserving products and/or for their safe storage.

It is common in these experiences that men are attracted to this intensive and diverse space, especially when environmental conditions are adverse for rainfed crops, fields and pastures under male responsibility. When water infrastructures have greater capacity, covering a hectare or two, the backyards become confused with other subsystems and the production design becomes more complex and the division of labor itself is changed, becoming more shared.

All of this points to a rural extension process (ATER) that demands technical knowledge, but above all, appropriate methods. The search for solutions for each case cannot be done individually, which would make ATER impossible on a scale with a large number of participants. The method used by agroecological ATER NGOs is to organize collectives of women who begin to discuss their specific situations and the technical choices to be applied in each case.

The exchange of knowledge and experiences is vital in this process. The size of the groups has no fixed rules and depends more on the willingness of the women, and the ideal is to form neighborhood groups as much as possible, facilitating meetings and visits. Groups vary between one and two dozen, with the assistance of an ATER technician. In these experiences, the presence of women in ATER tends to facilitate group integration, but this is not an absolute requirement.

Costs of the agroecological backyard program.

We have to guarantee public financing for the implementation of systems, since we are dealing with a population classified as extremely poor. These costs include: (1) water infrastructure works for water capture and distribution, (2) fences, (3) animal shelters, (4) water pumping and distribution equipment, (5) carts and/or wheelbarrows, (6) donkeys for traction, (7) storage tanks, (8) compost bins, (9) farm animals (chickens, pigs, sheep, cows), (10) vegetable seeds, grass seeds, green manures, corn, beans, cassava, others, (11) seedlings of fruit trees and other trees for firewood, charcoal or wood, (12) plows, harnesses and other implements, (13) payment for third party services.

The cost of operating the backyard system is much lower. For a while it may be necessary to purchase manure to fertilize the various subsystems and, eventually, pay for third-party services in some stages of backyard management. The purchase of products to manufacture biological or organic pest controllers must also be included in these operating costs.

I don't have a precise calculation of these costs at the moment (I intend to do so soon), but it is clear that they far exceed the value attributed by the Ministry of Agrarian Development in the program presented at Marcha das Margaridas, 1 thousand reais per quintal.

I do not believe that this financing can be done through credit such as Pronaf. This is not a public with access to banks and is averse to formal debt. If the available resources are insufficient for all women simultaneously in the development format, I propose that they be donated to access mechanisms under the control of the interested parties themselves, such as Solidarity Revolving Funds. This has already worked, and very well, in financing cisterns. The inconvenience is that the process is slower, as not all interested parties will be able to receive the benefit simultaneously, with some having to wait for the first beneficiaries to pay their loans.

It is important to note that this alternative, non-bank credit is perfectly acceptable to this public who, as already mentioned, has an aversion to debt. As it is a system under the control of those interested and with rules established by them, this aversion is overcome.

Finally, it is necessary to include among the costs the payment of salaries and daily allowances for ATER agents, as well as the cost of multiple meetings of women's collectives participating in the program. The cost of meetings tends to be quite low, but their frequency can make them significant. Furthermore, it is common for these collective processes to mobilize the assistance of more experienced women farmers, who pass on their knowledge to others. This often means paying these popular advisors to compensate for the time spent serving the collective. These daily allowances do not represent, individually, much resources, but if this very important contribution gains space in a group, the cost increases in the same proportion.

Complementary initiatives.

The formation of groups of women managing agroecological gardens in neighborhoods or communities gives rise to the possibility of creating collective enterprises for the production of inputs, which would make each woman's work easier. Among these we can mention the creation of vectors for pest control. The Cuban experience of building small laboratories and breeding facilities for beneficial insects is, without a doubt, spectacular and should be studied and reproduced in Brazil.

These projects are managed by the farmers themselves, without the need for a permanent specialized technical presence and have a low implementation cost (20 thousand dollars) and maintenance. In Cuba, the size of these insect “factories” varies depending on the density of the communities, but can benefit hundreds of producers for each of them.

What size is possibleDo you like this program?

Assuming that each group should be anchored in an already established backyard that would serve as a support/model for the collective process, the immediate potential of this program would be 300 thousand backyards. This calculation is based on the existence of around 20 thousand backyards and the formation of collectives with an average of 15 women in each one. If we consider that an ATER technician can advise 5 groups, the demand for technical assistance will be 4 thousand agents.

This demand will be heavier during the systems implementation phase and will tend to become rarer as the operation progresses. The duration of this implementation should not exceed the first two years. After that, these ATER techniques will be able to dedicate part of their time to creating new collectives.

This high demand for ATER agents could be an obstacle to a broader program from its first year onwards. There are not many technicians or techniques with experience in agroecology, much less in agroecological backyards in Brazil. To give you an idea of ​​the size of ATER services currently, Emater has 13500 extension workers and civil society entities around 2000, and only a minority fraction of this group has any experience in agroecology. The program would have to invest significant time in staff training, both in methods and techniques.

Where can I find these ATER techniques and technicians? Three movements should be initiated: (i) mobilizing the States' Emater as partners in the program, (ii) mobilizing civil society entities (NGOs and social organizations such as MPA, MST, MMC, CONTAG and CONTRAF), (iii) mobilizing the SEBRAE and SENAR.

Finally, Federal Technical Schools and Agricultural Universities in all States should be mobilized to join the program, both to indicate potential participating technicians and to take on ATER training programs.

The starting point of this program could be the systematization of the many experiences already underway, in order to produce a guidance manual for new technicians. On the other hand, training courses should be organized in all territories where there are already backyards and which should be the targets of a first concentration of efforts.

Program structuring.

The scope of this program, aiming to benefit (in four years) 300 thousand families (and 1,2 million, in another four years), will require intense collaboration with social movements. Practice shows that the mobilization of women to participate in the proposal and the organization of collectives cannot be done without strong leadership from male and female farmers' organizations. Before being launched, this program should be discussed with social movements and ensure their participation in the final formulation and execution.

On the other hand, ATER NGOs hold the majority of the collection of agroecological backyard experiences and they should be called upon to participate in their formulation and execution. Finally, the fact that some of the technicians and techniques must be made available by Emater requires that these entities also participate in the formulation and execution of the program. And we cannot forget that the objectives of this program place it on the border between the obligations of the Ministry of Agrarian Development and those of the Ministries of Social Development and the Environment.

Although I am proposing this program for the Ministry of Agrarian Development, I believe that the executing agent should be the BNDES, which has fewer bureaucratic obstacles in the use of funds under its control. This already occurs with the Ecoforte program, which could serve as a management model. The advantage of having BNDES as manager is, above all, placing all resources (investments, funding, ATER, etc.) in the same place. If resources are dispersed across several MDA departments, such as credit and ATER, access becomes more complex and time-consuming.

Access to these resources should be through public calls for the presentation of projects that should be undertaken by consortiums of entities including, at least, one organization representing the target audience in one or more of the territories chosen by the program (an STR, a Cooperative , Community Associations, Settler Associations, others) and an ATER entity (Emater, ATER organizations of social movements, NGOs).

Costs to the government

I will have to refine and detail all the costs indicated above, from investments to technical support and those for operating the development promotion process. The highest cost is expected to be that of water infrastructure, in particular the sidewalk cistern (25 thousand reais). I estimate that other investments will double this value, reaching 50 thousand reais. In other words, a total value of 15 billion reais for the 300 thousand beneficiaries.

In addition to investments in infrastructure and other backyard costs, the program will have an important cost in ATER services, which I estimate at 400 million per year.

Obviously, a project of this scale will have to be spread over several years, especially because it will be necessary to train ATER agents on a large scale and this will not be done all at once. In a 4-year project, the total cost of ATER would be 1,6 billion and the total program cost would be 16,6 billion or 4,15 billion per year.

It's a lot of money, but let's remember that the Ministry of Agrarian Development is spending nine billion a year just on the equalization of subsidized interest to finance the production of commodities for less than 350 thousand capitalized farmers. With a cost of less than half the amount spent on agribusiness each year, the Ministry of Agrarian Development would provide a fundamental benefit to 300 families among the poorest in our peasantry, who would leave Bolsa Família.

The Ministry of Agrarian Development may no longer be the ministry of agribusiness, a small minority capitalized on family farming. In fact, this sector does not need this high subsidy. It is well integrated into the production chain of commodities of exports and is able to produce profitably while paying market interest rates, paving the way for the ministry's meager resources to be used to benefit the poorest.

Furthermore, this program can serve as a basis for the formation of a broad technical assistance capacity focused on agroecology and which will be crucial for us to take a leap forward in the dissemination of this production model in the next Lula government. This could start with extending the agroecological backyard program to the 1,2 million women.

If the costs of bringing this program to another 1,2 million families would be 4 times greater, its execution would be greatly facilitated by the existence of 300 thousand quintas that would serve as a model for both new beneficiaries and ATER services.

*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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