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The ‘breadbasket’ of the tropics?

Brazil’s tropical grain growers are upending the conventional wisdom on grain production

A farmer checks his soybean crop in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso.

One of your major grain-growing competitors has been turning the world on its ear by producing grain in a tropical locale.

Historically the tropics have been among the poorest regions, with the lowest agriculture productivity and highest incidents of malnutrition.

It wasn’t until the late-1990s the tropics began to emerge as a possible region for growing grain crops, particularly soybean. But, today, farmers in central Brazil are using a new tropical system of production known as safrinha, or succession farming, which results in two large crops — soybean and maize — per year.

Agricultural economists at the University of Illinois recently took an in-depth look at the production system, in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso.

“They far surpass Illinois or Iowa as a state, and the yields are the same as in the U.S. But nobody 20 years ago thought you could produce soybean in the tropics,” said Peter Goldsmith, a professor in the department of agricultural and consumer economics at U of I and lead author of the study.

“The thought is that the ‘breadbasket’ was outside that region and these regions would forever be food-importing regions. And, up until the late-1990s — not that long ago — nobody thought of the potential for the tropical world,” Goldsmith said.

Key to the system’s success is double — and in some cases even triple — cropping.

“It’s a very different sort of agriculture, but the real point is that they have proven that you can engage broad-land production in the tropics,” Goldsmith said.

The results of the study inform thinking about agricultural expansion in the tropics.

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