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About The Cerrado of Brazil

In the Brazilian savannah, whatever is planted will grow.


Map of Brazilian Cerrado The phrase – ‘in this land, whatever is planted will grow’, - originally from a letter written to the king of Portugal in 1500 by Pero Vaz de Caminha, to describe the recently discovered Brazil, may be adapted to the cerrado, the country’s savannah. With research, investment and entrepreneurialism, the region, which was considered improper for agriculture, now has one of the greatest levels of productivity in the world and answers to 54% of the Brazilian production of grain. Today ANBA starts publishing a series of articles about the matter.


Alexandre Rocha*

São Paulo – The cerrado, the Brazilian savannah, is a unique example. It was considered improper for agriculture, but in approximately three decades became one of the regions with the greatest average production in the world. Nowadays this biome, as researchers call it, answers to over 50% of the Brazilian grain production and to an expressive share of agribusiness exports.


"When I was in college, my professors stated that soy, for example, was a temperate climate plant, that it could only grow in the south of the country,” stated agronomist Edson Lobato, a researcher retired from the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (Embrapa) and winner of the World Food Prize in 2006. The cerrado is largely similar to the African savannahs, having defined drought and rain periods, average annual temperatures of around 25° Celsius, soil with elevated acidity and a dearth of nutrients.


Lobato started working in research in the 1960s. "At that time, people told me not to waste time with that,” he said. His and other researchers’ and entrepreneurs’ "waste of time” caused soy production in the region to jump from 310,000 tons in 1975 to 36 million tons today, or 60% of the national production. Brazil is currently the second largest producer and exporter of the oleaginous grain. In the same period, maize crops have risen from 2.8 million tons to 17 million, and bean crops have risen from 300,000 to 1.2 million tons, just to mention some crops.


The cerrado, according to Lobato, also concentrates 89% of the national cotton production, 81% of the sorghum, 59% of the coffee, 55% of the cattle beef, 45% of the beans, 44% of the maize and 37% of the rice. According to the agronomist, between 1975 and 2000 this development has caused an annual reduction of 5% in the average cost of food.


Regional development

"In the state of Mato Grosso (in Midwestern Brazil), average soy production is greater than in the United States, the main world producer,” stated the head of the Embrapa's Cerrado Department, Roberto Teixeira.  Today the state, formerly dominated by extensive cattle farming, is the main soy and cotton producer in Brazil, with 30% and 46.5% of the national production respectively. Cattle farming is still strong, but is no longer the main activity: there are 26.8 million heads of cattle, or 13.5% of the Brazilian cattle herd.


Goiás, also in the Midwest, is another example. Producers from the state answer to 10% of the Brazilian grain production, being the state in the third place in the rank of cotton and soy producers. The state is also the third main producer of garlic, the second milk producer and the main tomato producer. "It is possible to produce anything in the cerrado: vegetables, fruit, sunflower, barley, wheat, etc.,” pointed out Lobato.


Goiás has also become a great producer of poultry. Perdigão, for example, forecasts that in a short period of time, the state will be the main production hub. Last year poultry was the fifth main export product from Goiás, with sales to the Middle East too.


The West of Bahia, in the northeast of the country, is another example, as it stands out in the coffee sector and now has the main irrigated coffee productivity in the world. The state has innovated in a sector in which Brazil was already the main producer and exporter. The region attracts not only producers, but also industrial enterprises. Galvani, in the fertilizer sector, for example, has built an industrial unit there. "We are the only fertilizer industry installed there. We went there in 1993, at the start of production, and we grew together,” stated company president Rodolfo Galvani.


The cerrado biome occurs in various states in Brazil, especially in the Midwest (Mato Grosso, Mato Grosso do Sul and Goiás), but it is also present in the states of Tocantins (in the North), Minas Gerais (in the Southeast), Bahia, Piauí and Maranhão (all in the Northeast). There are also cerrado areas in Ceará (in the Northeast), Pará, Amazonas, Rondônia, Roraima and Amapá (in the North) and even in São Paulo (in the Southeast).


The cerrado has an area of 207 million hectares, or 24% of the Brazilian territory, being 139 million areas on which it is possible to produce, according to the Embrapa. Currently, 14 million hectares are farmed with annual plants, like soy, cotton and maize, another 3.5 million are occupied by perennial crops, like coffee and fruit, and 60 million are used for cultivated grazing land.


When, in the 1970s, in the early days of the Embrapa, the government decided to invest heavily in research to develop the region, the idea was to incorporate 3 million hectares to national agriculture. "Thirty years ago nobody believed in the cerrado, the land was worth nothing,” stated Roberto Teixeira.


Investment, research and entrepreneurialism

From then on, the development of agricultural production took place based on three pillars: "research, public and private investment and entrepreneurialism”. With the research developed by Embrapa and other institutions it was possible to make agriculture viable from the technical point of view. "Up to then, the history of agriculture in Brazil consisted mainly of deforestation of fertile areas and use until they were depleted,” recalled Lobato.


The first step was development of techniques for correction of the acidity of the soil, with the use of lime, and correct fertilization. “The technology generation process was fast,” stated Lobato. "There was no example of success in lands like these anywhere in the world,” he added. Entrepreneurialism, then, was an important factor.


The first cooperatives in the cerrado region, for example, were established by producers from the South and Southeast of the country. "At the time, highways were opened and electric networks were installed by the farmers themselves,” stated the president of the Organization of Brazilian Cooperatives (OCB), Márcio Lopes de Freitas. And investment continued. The Maggi Group, one of the largest companies in Brazilian agribusiness, for example, built the Madeira-Amazonas Waterway, inaugurated in 1997, to transfer part of the state of Mato Grosso’s agricultural production to the North of Brazil.


"The success of the cerrado, and specifically of Mato Grosso, was due to professionals, people who wanted to win,” added Pedro Valente, production manager of the Agro division at Maggi.


Private organizations also played their part in research. One example is Mato Grosso Foundation, established by farmers in the 1980s, which works in the genetic improvement of soy. Development of seeds that were more resistant to pests and adverse conditions were other important steps in the development of agriculture in the cerrado. "The Embrapa and Mato Grosso Foundation development of seeds, permitted the production of soy in Mato Grosso,” added Valente.


Other techniques were developed, among them "biological nitrogen fixing in soy culture”. Introduced in 1981, it consists of the use of bacteria that removes nitrogen form the air, fixes it in the earth and transfers it to the plant, eliminating the need for chemical nitrogen in fertilization. "The process is currently used in 23 million hectares in Brazil, i.e., it s also outside the cerrado, and provides an economy of R$ 750 million (approximately US$ 350 million) a year,” stated Roberto Teixeira.


The integration of crops and livestock farming was another procedure considered important by the Embrapa. It consists in the use of part of the grazing lands for the plantation of crops, with rotation of cultures. That is, when a farmer is raising cattle on one part of his farm, he plants crops on another. Direct planting is also a strategy that is greatly used, in which seeds are planted on the remains of the previous crop, without the need for ploughing the land. "This way you conserve the soil, avoid erosion and maintain nutrients,” stated Teixeira.


Another, developed more recently, is agricultural zoning, which consists in identifying the best place for the plantation of a specific product through soil sensing. "This is one of the tools developed by the Embrapa that provided the best return and started being used in large scale in 1997,” said Teixeira. New irrigation techniques are also in use.



The Numbers:

  • 1.4 million ha of annual crops (3.36 million acres)

  • 3.5 million ha perennial crops (8.4 million acres)

  • 60 million ha of pasture (144 million acres)

  • 54% of grain production

  • One of the World's most productive regions


source: Embrapa - Mr. Edson Lobato




World Bank:   Public Research Organizations and Agricultural Development
in Brazil: How Did Embrapa Get It Right?  (opens in PDF file)



Wash Post: Brazilian scientists turning nation into an agro-power   (article from 2010 but still informative)




Agribusiness in the Brazilian Cerrado

Map Land
Reserve Percentages

Know Your Brazilian Biome:
the Cerrado, the New Agricultural Frontier

More Cerrado
information and photos




Kory Melby
Goiania, Brazil


55 (62) 3286-1506
Pls, no cold calls.  Email to set up appointment.

EMAIL  agturbobrazil(at)yahoo.com





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