A new place for agriculture – II

Image: Lucio Fontana


The situation of family farming in Brazil and what can be expected from this sector to face the current food crisis

In the previous article I described the various crises that have been trampling humanity and their implications for agriculture, in particular for food production. In this part 2, I will analyze the situation of family farming (AF) in Brazil and what can be expected from this sector to face the current food crisis (yes, we have a food crisis, and a serious one) and the future one, as a result of the threats previously exposed.


Family farming is the result of centuries of marginalization:

The exploration of the territory that became Brazil began with the extraction of brazilwood from the Atlantic Forest, but it only gained physical presence and occupation with what many historians define as the first agrarian capitalist enterprise in the world, the production of sugar from cane. The model of this agribusiness ancestor marked the history of the country, with the centrality of the work of enslaved Africans in the framework of our economy as a whole and in the domestic space of whites.

It marked the rural space even more, with its gigantic properties, the exploitation of monocultures and the disregard for the preservation of soils and environmental conditions. The extension of the territory created the mirage of the existence of infinite natural resources that could be exploited to the point of exhaustion and abandoned, breaking the agricultural frontier always towards the west. We are still living, in part, this process, with the same vices of origin.

If the exporting latifundium was the engine of our economy until the XNUMXth century, moving from sugarcane to cotton, coffee, cocoa and even rubber extraction, where did food production take place? The whites of the Casa Grande imported what they ate, in particular wheat, but how did the enslaved feed? Two complementary models were used: planting food inside the estates managed by the business owners, also operated with enslaved labor or; outsourcing of food production (cassava, maize, beans, …), in “surplus” spaces, not occupied by export crops.

It is the genesis of our family farming, whose producers were poor or well-off whites and mestizos who also used enslaved labor. This characteristic of family farming, being located on the “edges” of large estates or in areas where the agricultural frontier is cleared, has remained dominant in almost all of the national territory throughout our history. The most notable exception was the strong entry of European migration from the second half to the end of the XNUMXth century, and it was concentrated in the southern region, in particular in Rio Grande do Sul and, to a lesser extent, in Santa Catarina and Paraná.

They were Italians, Germans, Poles, Ukrainians, Russians, Dutch. Later came the Swiss, who settled in Rio de Janeiro and the Japanese, who moved to the southeast and north. They were almost all peasants, facing the crisis provoked by the beginning of the modernization of the large European properties that generated unemployment of rural workers and bankruptcy of family farmers unable to compete with the new modernized companies, mainly due to the use of guano (imported from Peru and Chile) as fertilizer and the introduction of animal-drawn harvesters.

It is necessary to remember that a significant portion of the enslaved escaped from the Casa Grande undertakings and settled in what became known as the quilombo. It was an agrarian economy completely outside that of the ruling class and focused on food production in the communities of fugitive blacks. We are still counting how many families of descendants of these original quilombolas still subsist in their territories, the last census pointing to more than two million people.

The binary latifundium/small property model, the large ones producing for export and the small ones to feed the domestic market, has been maintained over time. The constant process of expansion of large estates was also maintained, always following the trail of areas opened up by family farming on the frontiers, taking their lands and pushing them ever further west.

This takes us to the most recent situation, that of the second half of the last century. The rural country that emerged from the crisis of the 1930s and the period of the Second World War was strongly shaken by the process of industrial urban development, which began in the thirties during the dictatorship of Getúlio Vargas. This process, characterized by the substitution of industrial imports, accelerated in the fifties and during the military dictatorship. The attraction of urban jobs, whether in industries that were multiplying, or in intense urban civil construction (Brasília in the first place) or in gigantic economic infrastructures (roads, dams, electricity transmission lines, etc.), combined with the permanent pressure of the large estates, miserable conditions in the countryside and environmental crises led millions of family farmers to migrate.

In three decades, more than 40 million people moved from the countryside to cities, especially capitals and metropolitan regions. From 1975 to 2017, the rural population continued to fall, from almost 40% to almost 14% of the total population. The emptying of the rural world practically extinguished two categories of family farmer that were, for a long time, part of the identity of the latifundio: the dweller (living and producing in the latifundia) and the sharecropper (working under contract with the landowners).

On the other hand, the eternal movement of migration to the west, breaking through the agricultural frontier and then ceding new areas for the advance of large estates, was altered by a new movement that provoked the intensification of conflicts in the Amazon region and in the cerrado. Land grabbing surpassed the movement of family farmers on the margins of the agricultural frontier and began to dispute the unexplored lands to the west. This was due to the construction of large roads that began to cross the north and center west, facilitating wholesale land grabbing and anticipating the east/west and south/north movement of family farming.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, when the urbanization movement underwent a slowdown, due to the prolonged economic crisis after the oil shocks of 1973 and 1979, family farming was already, numerically, a residue of the past. Despite this, family farming arrives at the 1985 agricultural census with a respectable role as producer of 70% of the food consumed by Brazilians. However, it must be remembered that this production for the domestic market was highly insufficient to meet the nutritional needs of the population. Although little talked about, mainly by the censorship of the military dictatorship, the levels of food insecurity (hunger and malnutrition) were very high and production was limited by a demand compressed by poverty.

It was during this period that the military regime's heavy investments in the modernization of the land began to mature, giving rise to what is now known as agribusiness. After the 80s, when the source of state financing was suspended, agribusiness expanded again with force and, not by chance, with the resumption of state financing in subsidized credits and tax exemptions, in the government of Fernando Henrique Cardoso, maintained and expanded during the governments of Lula and Dilma Rousseff, Michel Temer and Jair Bolsonaro.

The family farming that exists today is the result of several factors. The main one has a historical origin: family farming is located, with very few well-defined exceptions, in ecosystems less favorable to agriculture (semi-arid northeast, flooded areas in the northern region, degraded areas in the Cerrado region) or in marginal areas in more favorable ecosystems such as the Atlantic Forest and the Pampa. We will find family farmers on stony, sloping land with degraded soils. On the other hand, the astonishing concentration of the best lands in the hands of agribusiness and large estates in the strict sense is probably the largest in the world.

According to the 2017 agricultural census, there were 5,07 million rural properties in Brazil, occupying an area of ​​351 million hectares. Employer-type establishments (or agribusiness) were 1,2 million (23,7% of the total) and occupied 270 million hectares (76% of the total), with an average area of ​​225 ha. Family farmers were 3,87 million (75% of the total) and occupied 81 million hectares (23% of the total), with an average area of ​​21 hectares. These macro numbers point to the extraordinary concentration of land ownership in Brazil, but they hide even more impactful indices when detailing land ownership between the smallest and largest producers.

2,5 million family farmers (50% of the total number of producers, large and small) have less than 10 hectares and occupy 8 million hectares (2,3% of the total area), while 51,2 thousand large landowners (1 % of the total number) have more than a thousand hectares each and occupy 167 million hectares (47,6% of the total area). If we analyze this layer of mega-owners in detail, we find that only 2.450 of them (0,85% of all types of farmers) with an area greater than 10.000 thousand hectares, occupy 51,6 million hectares (15% of the area of all agricultural properties in Brazil). The area occupied by this handful of mega-owners is 6,5 times larger than that occupied by 2,5 million households with less than 10 ha.

The exponential growth of agribusiness from the 90s until now had a negative impact on family farming, precisely during the period in which the first public policies aimed at this category were established, with the creation of the MDA and PRONAF, the ATER policy, the rural insurance, PAA and PNAE. It was also the period (1995/2015) in which the land reform policy gained strength, creating 1.313.630 new family owners.

The 2017 census shows that all this was insufficient to consolidate and expand the role of the peasantry in food production. Comparing with the previous census, in 2006, family farming lost 470 properties, reducing to 3,87 million. This occurred despite the agrarian reform having given land to 400 families in this interval. In other words, the balance between settlers and those who abandoned agriculture indicates that close to one million families left the countryside. The area occupied by family farming remained more or less the same as that indicated in the 2006 census, pointing to a slight increase in the average area.

Agribusiness grew in number and occupied area. From 2006 to 2017, 366,5 new owners and 16,8 million hectares were added.

Not only did family farming lose in numbers, it also lost in its role in food production.

The census indicates that the participation of family farming in the production of:

rice dropped to 11%,
black-eyed peas for 34%,
black beans for 42%,
corn to 12,5%,
chicken for 36%,
cattle for 31%,
eggs for 9%,
wheat to 18%,
banana for 49%,
cassava for 70%,
milk for 64%,
pigs to 34,5%.

In commodities, the participation of family farming was:

9,3% for soy,
35,4% for Arabica coffee,
50% for Robusta coffee,
7% for orange,
0,1% for cotton,
1,9% for sugar cane,
57% for cocoa.

In terms of production value (food or not) the share of family farming fell from 33% in 2006 to 23% in 2017, a drop of 1/3 in 11 years.

In terms of employment, family farming lost 2,2 million workers, dropping to 10,1 million employed, whether family members or contractors. This has to do with the reduction in the number of family farms, but also with the increase in mechanization of crops in some cultures and regions and the replacement of temporary crops by animal husbandry in others. Mechanization took place mainly in the southern region, which lost 28% of employed persons.

The number of family farms with a tractor has increased significantly, reaching 45% of all tractors in use in Brazilian agriculture, agribusiness included. The difference between the big and the small is in the power of the tractors, 90% of those used by the latter having less than 100 hp.

Although the census data do not allow us to generalize the type of technical changes in the production of family farming, several indications from academic research indicate that there has been a strong change in the production model. In the south and southeast regions, the increase in the use of tractors and the orientation of credit towards the production of commodities, in particular corn and soybeans, point to the abandonment of the model derived from traditional agriculture, with polycultures and intercropped creations and the adoption of monocultures using chemical fertilizers, hybrid/transgenic seeds and pesticides. In other regions, there was a drop in food crops and an expansion of planted pastures for raising cattle.

Let us now look at the structure of this category of family farmers, based on the size of the properties.

The data that I am about to present were calculated by CONTAG and show the land structure of family farming: (i) less than 10 ha: 2.090.000 (54%), including 1% without its own area; (ii) between 10 and 50 ha: 1.354.500 (35%); (iii) eBetween 50 and 100 ha: 425.700 (11%).

The size of the property does not necessarily define the economic condition of the producer. Other studies, based on average income (RM) earned, point to even more worrying data.

group I (extreme poverty), with MR of less than half of the national MR of family farming: 2.244.600 (58%). This group receives 11% of the basic production value (VBP) from family farming.

group II (poverty), with MR between half and three times the national MR: 1.277.100 (33%). The group receives 21% of its VBP from family farming.

Group III (remedied to rich): with MR greater than three times the national MR: 348.300 (9%). The group receives 68% of its VBP from family farming.

These data indicate that the wealth earned by family farming is highly concentrated in a portion of just 9% of this category. Although there is no precise correlation between property size and income, there is a clear tendency for these indicators to come together. If we add to these data the geographical distribution of family farming, this trend becomes even clearer. Almost half of family farming (47,5%) is found in the northeast region and the vast majority in the semi-arid region, counting 1.840.000, in approximate numbers. Due to the natural difficulties of the climate in the caatinga with increasing instability of water supply and increasingly frequent and prolonged droughts, we can consider that this poorest group must be heavily concentrated among family farmers in this region.

To summarize, this group of family farmers in the semi-arid region (northeast and part of the southeast), with less than 10 ha and, eventually, a portion of those with between 10 and 50 ha, producing for self-consumption and dependent on external income (Bolsa Família, retirement, contributions from family members, outside work, others), employing traditional production methods with low productivity, should be the focus of a program by the Ministry of Agrarian Development, which I will discuss in another article.

I speculate that this public must comprise close to 1,8 million beneficiaries. I leave open what we should call these farmers so as not to use the category of miserable or extreme poverty. Mini-funders? It is true that the majority fits this definition used by INCRA, but a portion escapes this criterion, which intends to combine size and income. Another 400 family farmers in this category of extreme poverty are distributed across all other biomes and the characteristics of these biomes should guide specific programs. Perhaps the better name is traditional subsistence producer producer.

A second group would be the owners with 10 to 50 ha, whose number is almost equal to the intermediate group according to the average income criterion, although this does not mean an exact coincidence. Indeed, a family farmer can be well off or even rich and have less than 10 ha of land. Or be miserable with more than 50 ha. But I believe these will be exceptions to the rule that pairs property size with income.

This second group will be quite diversified, with the poorest approaching the extreme poverty group and the less poor approaching the medium/rich. It is characterized by the adoption of production systems mixing traditional and other so-called modern practices in varying proportions according to culture and location; by production for self-consumption combined with production for the market; little use of machinery; little access to bank credit; low productivity; poor quality or worn land; little available area; climate vulnerability, although it should be less severe than in the semi-arid region.

This group should be mainly focused on food production for local/micro-regional markets. It must be distributed in all regions and reach a total number of 1,3 million family farmers. I don't know what to call this group either.

A third group would be the AF with MR greater than three times the national MR. They are considered well off or even rich; employing the techniques of agrochemistry; mechanized; with access to bank credit; integrated with transformation industries such as wheat and corn mills, feed, poultry, pork, milk, grapes, vegetable oils, juices, others; with average areas greater than 50 ha, although a plot with 20 to 50 ha may be in this category.

They total some 400 family farmers, with a strong concentration in the southern region. Many of these farmers turned to the production of commodities, mainly soy and corn, and the southern region absorbed more than 50% of the credit distributed by PRONAF in the last decade for these two products. This group could clearly be called agribusiness, but the name is somewhat pejorative and we should look for another name. Maybe we use an integrated/modernized producer?

This strenuous and imprecise study of the characterization of family farming was necessary for us to be able to think of proposals for policies and differentiated programs, both in terms of objectives and the instruments to be used. This will be the subject of a future article, after analyzing the policies adopted between 1996 and 2022.

*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).

To read the first article in this series click on https://aterraeredonda.com.br/um-novo-lugar-para-a-agricultura/

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