By the year 2050, the Earth could have as many as 9 billion people, including a growing global middle class hungry for higher value nourishment. Food output will have to increase by as much as 60 percent. Where will such a phenomenal expansion take place? If Latin America does things correctly, it could well become the world’s next breadbasket.
That’s the principal conclusion of a recent report on this region’s agricultural potential. Latin America already is a major producer and exporter of commodities such as grains, beef, sugar and coffee. We’re also blessed in three crucial aspects: our region holds one-third of the world’s fresh water resources, we have more than one-quarter of the land available for sustainable expansion, and much of our territory is suited for rain-fed cultivation.
But we’re barely scratching the surface. To take advantage of this window of opportunity, over the next decade or two Latin America will have to make smart decisions regarding its investments in infrastructure, research and development, and support for its farmers, the great majority of whom are smallholders.
Not all improvements, however, will require huge infusions of capital or ground-breaking technology. Take the example of some forward-thinking ranchers in my home country, Colombia. Most of the department of Caquetá, where these rural entrepreneurs live, is covered by dense jungle. And hopefully it will remain heavily forested in the future. Cattle are raised on thousands of small-scale farms dotting its vast natural grasslands.
Ranchers are benefiting from a rising demand for beef and dairy products from a rapidly growing and increasingly prosperous middle class. This is great news for our rural areas, where poverty is more deeply rooted. The bad news: that same demand could trigger an explosion of slash and burn deforestation.
However, ranchers in Caquetá have a relatively simple and cheap alternative that can boost their productivity and actually increase the tree coverage. Silvopastoral ranching, as the technique is known, involves planting trees and upgrading natural meadows.
Trees do double duty: they provide shade for the cattle, which can suffer stress under the tropical sun, at the same time as they fix nitrogen and stabilize soils. Coupled with better herd management, improved meadows can lead to fatter cattle and higher quality milk.
Pilot projects have yielded impressive results: milk output doubled, more farm jobs were created and rural household incomes rose. The trick is to scale them up.
The principal obstacle is financing. So we’re working with a major food company, which buys milk from Caquetá dairy farmers, in order to provide loans that will enable more ranches to switch to silvopastoral systems.
If all goes well, in a few years cows will give more milk, farmers will make more money, dairies will gain better suppliers, and Caquetá will get more jobs and trees. The bigger bet: that Colombia will take this experience to a national level, spreading these good practices to hundreds of thousands of farms.
Alberto Moreno is president of the Washington,
D.C.based Inter-American Development Bank, the leading source of long-term
financing and technical cooperation for economic, social and institutional
development in Latin America and the Caribbean.