Brazil's China Obsession Creates Painful Food Shortage at Home

July 8, 2016 06:59 AM
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Brazilian farmers just couldn’t resist Chinese pigs.

More than half the world’s porcine population, they eat millions of tons of soybean meal every year. To feed them, Brazilians have been planting the crop on every available acre, from the savannas of the Center-West to the southern pampas. Something had to make way, and often it was the bean that Brazilians themselves love to eat, the carioca. And now the local favorite is in short supply: its price doubled in the past 12 months, helping push one key measure of inflation to an eight-year high.

Add it to the long list of woes in a country suffering its worst recession in a century and a seemingly endless political crisis. Beans aren’t the only casualty of the clash between export-oriented farmers and domestic food priorities, as a weak currency makes selling abroad more attractive. Brazilians are paying record prices for sugar even though their country is the world’s biggest grower, while poultry processors have cut output because of a shortage of corn for chickenfeed.

When it comes to soybeans, Brazilian farmers “ran for security,” said Lincoln Campello -- who was one of them. Campello, 53, has been farming his 870 hectares in the southern Parana state for almost 30 years. He stopped growing carioca beans three years ago.

Brazil’s soy farms now cover 33.2 million hectares, an area bigger than Italy. They expanded almost 50 percent in the past decade, while plantations of carioca and other beans were declining about 30 percent to 2.9 million hectares. Better productivity has offset some of that shrinkage, but when a dry spell hit this year, it wasn’t enough. Bean stockpiles are now about 15 percent of their 2011 level. In Sao Paulo supermarkets, a one-kilogram packet costs as much as 15 reais ($4.45), up from 5 reais a few months earlier.

To be sure, higher carioca prices will lure some farmers back to growing them. Campello says he won’t be one of them. “My fear is that many farmers choose to plant beans, and that increasing production next year may cause dramatic price falls,” he said. “The soybean is a guarantee of good prices and buyers.”

Soybeans have been lucrative for their growers. Prices almost tripled in the decade through 2010, and soybean meal has been the hottest commodity on Chinese markets this year, jumping almost 40 percent. A globally traded foodstuff has other advantages too. Futures markets are available to smooth out prices, and farmers have more borrowing options: they can get credit from fertilizer or chemical companies, and the international trading firms that buy the crop.

Only in Brazil

By contrast, it’s only really Brazilians who grow and eat the carioca, a light-brown bean usually cooked with onion and garlic and served with rice and meat. Cultivators often depend on government loans, which have been harder to come by in recent years as the economy stalled, according to Vlamir Brandalizze, who runs a firm of agricultural consultants.

Brandalizze says a credit expansion, targeted at irrigation projects, could solve the problem by enabling farmers to grow carioca beans as a third crop each year, sandwiched between soybeans in the summer and corn during the winter. “It could be a great opportunity for farmers to increase their income and for the Brazilian government to guarantee domestic supply,” he said.

But Acting President Michel Temer has pledged to trim a near-record budget deficit. And he has a lot on his plate besides beans: Temer only took office in May as a stand-in for the suspended Dilma Rousseff, who faces possible impeachment, and he’s already battling corruption allegations similar to the ones that sank his predecessor.

Both leaders are getting blamed for the bean crisis. Brazilians exchange faked pictures on social media that show beans being transported in maximum-security armored trucks, or banks offering special loans so shoppers can afford to buy a packet.

So far, the only government response has been to suspend import taxes until November. Brazil already buys from Argentina and China, and the Agriculture Ministry is encouraging importers to check out other options.

“We’re bringing a beans shipment from the U.S. for the first time in 20 years,” said Marcelo Luders, president of Brazil’s bean institute. He estimates that total imports may double this year to 300,000 tons.

But none of the foreign varieties are quite the right kind. No one else grows carioca. “We can’t import carioca beans, so their prices won’t fall until supply grows again,” says Luders.

So the country will have to wait -- or worse. The message from Alcido Wander of the state-run agricultural research institute Embrapa is bleak: Brazil needs to “increase production and consumption of varieties that are traded among different countries.” In other words, kick the carioca habit.

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