The Erosion of Agrobiodiversity and Food Cultures

By Sílvio Isoppo Porto and Diana Aguiar

Throughout the country, hunger and food insecurity grows while agribusiness posts record harvests. Soybean production is highly concentrated in the Cerrado region and its transition zones, pushing pasture areas into the Amazon forest and taking over areas that grow staple domestic crops across several regions of the country.

A hegemonic narrative lauds Brazilian crop yields claiming increased technical efficiency and increased productivity, which would offset reductions in the total planted area of several food crops. However, per capita availability of foodstuffs, such as beans and rice, has declined steadily over the last 20 years.

The impacts of such changes are much more significant than mere changes in production volume: we are witnessing the erosion of agrobiodiversity (due to the loss of seed varieties and of native and adapted species) and of traditional knowledge of how to best manage diverse agricultural ecosystems. In addition to the incalculable loss of genetic diversity, ways of living and food cultures, the erosion of agrobiodiversity stands to worsen the already alarming situation of food insecurity that plagues Brazil.

Hunger is growing in Brazil

Food insecurity in Brazil grew precipitously in recent years, most notably between 2018 and 2020. Between 2003 and 2013, the country saw significant improvement in population food security[1]; the following period unfortunately saw a staggeringly sharp decline as seen in the graph below.[2]

In December 2020, when coronavirus emergency aid was still being disbursed, 116.7 million people – 55% of the Brazilian population – faced some degree of food insecurity (FI). Of those, 43.4 million did not have enough food to meet their nutritional needs (moderate or severe FI) and, of these, 19 million were actually going hungry.[3]

There are multiple reasons for growing hunger in Brazil. But one of the causes that is now structural in nature is precisely the change in the configuration of agricultural food production in Brazil.


Data from the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE) taken from the National Survey of Food Insecurity in the Context the Covid-19 Pandemic in Brazil
Published by the Brazilian Food and Nutrition Security Research Network (Rede PENSSAN), 2021.

Available here.

Inquérito Nacional sobre Insegurança Alimentar no Contexto da Pandemia da Covid-19 no Brasil, realizado pela Rede Brasileira de Pesquisa em Soberania e Segurança Alimentar e Nutricional (Rede PENSSAN), 2021. O levantamento de campo foi realizado em dezembro de 2020.

Agricultural production in Brazil: more agri-business and less agri-culture[4]

Agrarian transformation in Brazil over the last 40 years – the greatest example of which is the soybean-meat complex – have weakened the country’s food supply structures and the quality of the food that reaches Brazilian’s tables. As a result of this process, words like “agribusiness” and “commodities” have become commonplace, marking the pinnacle of a process of gradual transformation in the way the foods we eat are produced and sold.

In other words, we see less and less of an agri-culture of healthy and diverse foods produced through traditional knowledge of landscape management passed down through generations and that fundamentally value agricultural biodiversity; foods grown from seed varieties environmentally adapted to a place over hundreds or thousands of years coexisting with a given ecosystem; foods culturally integrated as flavors that trigger memory and strengthen emotional connection; and foods sold locally or regionally that strengthen the bonds and mutual recognition between producers and consumers. This production model begets the Brazilian slogan adopted by the agro-ecology and food-sovereignty movements (which rhymes in Portuguese, “comida de verdade, no campo e na cidade”): “real food, in the country and in the city.”

What prevails today is increasingly a model of agribusiness that produces standardized commodities: commodities that highly financialized global markets demand; commodities for the ultra-processed food industry[5] that are laden with artificial flavor additives and preservatives; and commodities traded across extensive, multiscale logistical supply chains in which global products override local or identity-based foods. There is no ignoring an increased consumption of ultra-processed products that are cheaper than fresh and healthy foods and that correlate with the rise in obesity and chronic disease rates due to poor diet.


Part of the arguments presented in this article had been previously developed in: PORTO, Sílvio I.; AGUIAR, Diana. Os caminhos da insegurança alimentar. In: AGUIAR, Diana. Dossiê Crítico da Logística da Soja: Em defesa de alternativas à cadeia monocultural. Rio de Janeiro: FASE, 2021.

“Ultra-processed foods are industrial formulations made entirely or predominantly from substances extracted from food (oils, fats, starch, proteins), derived from food constituents (hydrogenated fats, modified starch) or synthesized in the laboratory from organic materials like petroleum and coal (colorants, flavorings, flavor enhancers and various types of additives used to endow products with attractive sensory properties). Manufacturing techniques include extrusion, molding and pre-processing by frying or baking.” (GUIA ALIMENTAR PARA A POPULAÇÃO BRASILEIRA, 2014).

This shift did not happen suddenly, much less randomly. It was the result of a state-led process under the guise of a “conservative modernization of agriculture” spearheaded by the Military-Business Dictatorship. The shift was designed to expand the agricultural frontier to the Cerrado and the Amazon.

Indigenous peoples, quilombola communities (peasant’s black communities, descended from enslaved people), and rural laborers are threatened and driven off their lands as a result of this expansion. They have responded by developing resistance (r-existence) strategies, either by remaining in their territories, taking back lands from land grabbers or migrating to settle in new territories at the “in-betweens” of the frontiers of agribusiness expansion. Sometimes they make up part of the contingent of landless rural workers encamped to claim land, eventually benefited by agrarian reform settlements, in regions far from their origin..

Soil and water contamination, deforestation, water depletion and the erosion of agrobiodiversity caused by animal and plant monocultures mean that land and territories for indigenous peoples, traditional peoples and peasant communities are often limited to areas that are not suitable for agriculture or food production, in which the material base (land, water and other natural resources) has been depleted or contaminated. This phenomenon has coincided, on the one hand, with an ongoing disregard for agrarian reform or for policies that offer incentives for family and peasant farming or that promote food and nutritional security, and, on the other hand, with prioritizing the expansion of commodity production. In short, these conflicts also contribute to the vulnerability of Brazil’s food supply.

Does Brazilian agricultural production meet our needs?

Even in the midst of the socioeconomic and environmental crises, the government, the Parliamentary Caucus for Agriculture and Livestock and representatives of agribusinesses regularly laud Brazil’s record grain harvests.

But there is nothing to celebrate. Production is concentrated in two commodities for export, soy and corn, which together account for 88% of the most recent grain harvest. Planted area for foodstuffs that make up staple Brazilian meals, such as rice, wheat and beans (which account for only 8% of national grain production) as well as manioc, potatoes, onions and tomatoes, decreased in the last decade mostly to make way for monoculture soybean crops.[6]

70% of domestic rice production is concentrated in the state of Rio Grande do Sul as a result of misguided agricultural policies that pushed for soy production in areas once dedicated to rice production, such as the state of Maranhão and the Midwest. This too has increased the vulnerability of domestic supply.

In the case of beans, production is currently stagnant, and planted areas have decreased. The composition of bean production has shifted over the last 15 years, with a decrease in the participation of family farming in its production in favor of a greater participation of producers linked to agribusiness, especially where irrigated planting systems are involved.

Beans are an even more shocking example given the important role beans play in different production systems linked to family farming and peasant agriculture, which often are trivialized in the name of productivity.

For example, cowpea beans, produced mainly in semi-arid regions, generally post lower yields, but this should not be a reason to ignore their importance in traditional production systems. To the contrary, such systems are important for managing agro-ecosystems because they help strengthen regional food crops and ensure a regional supply stemming from local production.

Even if we focus only on the quantity of rice and beans produced in Brazil, which has remained steady over the last two decades, per-capita availability is the worst it has been in 30 years. This largely explains the supply problems the country has been facing, especially the rise in prices. The situation is exacerbated by the lack of government stocks, the dismantling of policies that support family farming and peasant agriculture, and an increase in rice exports over the last decade. Rice supply has only remained steady because the country has offset the imbalance by importing large volumes of rice, especially from Paraguay.

According to Ministry of Agriculture (MAPA) forecasts for the 2029-2030 harvest, Brazilian rice production is even more worrisome. A recent report predicts a loss of about one million hectares, reducing domestic production to a mere 665,000 hectares[7]. The same report states average domestic productivity is expected to grow less in the next decade, which contradicts the ministry’s own predictions that domestic rice production would remain stable. Moreover, if we take into account the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE) population projections for 2030, per-capita availability will drop by almost half compared to 2020, which will further compound the supply crisis.

CONAB harvest data systematized by the authors.

Policies that contribute to food insecurity in Brazil

One of the most significant agrarian shifts in Brazil in recent decades has been the new geography of pasture and grazing land. Soy has taken over and continues to take over pasturelands in the Cerrado region[8], which has pushed cattle grazing land into the Amazon and Pantanal regions. These changes coincide with land grabbing, deforestation and fires, increasing conflicts over land and territory, especially with quilombola, traditional and indigenous communities.

The systematic dismantling of institutions and threats, many highlighted in this dossier[9], are also factors that increasingly contribute to the illegal occupation of public lands and conflicts with these communities. Threats to traditional ways of life, deforestation, and undermining agro-ecosystem management based on traditional knowledge all translate to the loss of agrobiodiversity.

Public policies and policy research are far from fortifying traditional production systems that save and use native seeds or seed varieties adapted to the different agro-ecosystems in which family farmers and peasants make a living. On the contrary, they tend to reinforce production standardization and concentration, even when it comes to the most traditional elements of our food culture like rice and beans.

The general upshot are agencies like Embrapa (a public research agency linked to MAPA) mobilizing to meet agribusiness’ production demands and disregarding the importance of production based on agrobiodiversity and of strengthening local markets.

Thus, while the government has consistently supported and subsidized agribusiness-based production, commercialization and consumption, family farming and peasant agriculture has struggled to get public policies passed that meet their needs, which are generally limited in terms of scope, institutional backing, budget and implementation. What limited (though still important) policies there were have only grown weaker with the dismantling of fundamental policies, especially since the 2016 presidential coup.[10]

As such, it is becoming increasingly difficult for people to have access to real food and, consequently, to enjoy their human right to proper and healthy food as enshrined in the Brazilian Constitution. To the contrary, all too often important export commodity-producing regions depend on purchasing food from other regions to feed their own populations.[11]

The food supply chain is thus increasingly dependent on extensive sales routes controlled by agricultural and retail companies, many of which are international. This concentrated model (in terms not only of routes, but of economic and technological control as well) lays bare the profound vulnerabilities of the country’s food supply.

Moreover, even in regions where family farming and peasant agriculture has remained strong, despite the de-structuring of their production systems, small farmers still need to confront unprecedented challenges to sell what they produce. From an infrastructure point of view, the public agenda has been dominated by efforts to promote massive transit corridors to aid the flow/trade of commodities, especially those destined for export.

In this sense, the regionally dominant monocultural landscapes can be more accurately described as true “food deserts.”[12] In spite of ongoing threats and a lack of support, traditional systems and family farming have shown resilience. They are still what guarantees what little remains in terms of food variety, food quality, agrobiodiversity, and supply to local and regional markets. Confronting food and nutritional insecurity requires breaking away from hegemonic agribusiness and establishing a new model of production and consumption predicated on the principles of agroecology and the commons, thus advancing the paths to food sovereignty.

Such as the Demonstrative Projects Subprogram (Subprograma Projetos Demonstrativos/PDA) and the Pro-Environment Subprogram (Pró-Ambiente, ended in 2000), the Food Acquisition Program (Programa de Aquisição de Alimentos/PAA), the Light for All Program (Luz para Todos), the Pronera Program and the Ecoforte Program.

The term is usually applied to urban settings to refer to neighborhoods, specifically outlying ghettos, where access to proper, healthy food is limited. See: Map of Food Deserts in Brazil (Mapeamento dos Desertos Alimentares no Brasil). Technical Study. MDS, 2018.

Sílvio Isoppo Porto is a professor and researcher at the Federal University of Recôncavo da Bahia (UFRB) and former director of the National Supply Company (CONAB).
Diana Aguiar is a post-doctoral researcher at the Graduate Social Sciences Program in Development, Agriculture and Society (CPDA) from the Federal Rural University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRRJ). She is an advisor to the National Campaign in Defense of the Cerrado.