Ioris on Fishlow and Vieira Filho, 'Agriculture and Industry in Brazil: Innovation and Competitiveness'

Albert Fishlow, José Eustáquio Ribeiro Vieira Filho
Antonio Ioris

Albert Fishlow, José Eustáquio Ribeiro Vieira Filho. Agriculture and Industry in Brazil: Innovation and Competitiveness. New York: Columbia University Press, 2020. 264 pp. $70.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-231-19170-8; $69.99 (e-book), ISBN 978-0-231-54952-3. 

Reviewed by Antonio Ioris (Cardiff University) Published on H-Sci-Med-Tech (September, 2022) Commissioned by Penelope K. Hardy (University of Wisconsin-La Crosse)

Printable Version:

Failing to Uncover the Fallacy of Modern Brazilian Agriculture

Contemporary Brazilian agriculture is one of the lingering puzzles of the global economy. On the one hand, it is strongly praised by politicians, landowners, many economists, and development specialists as an emblematic example of growing productivity and increasing farmer income. On the other, it is systematically criticized for astounding rates of soil erosion, water pollution, deforestation, food contamination, land grabbing, and recurrent cases of modern slavery. The main problem is that, to a large extent, Brazilian agriculture has been reduced to its controversial agribusiness sector, which is dominated by vast plantation fields, terrible socioecological results, and unjust accumulation of gains and political power. The enormous influence of landowners and commodity exporters is an old feature of Brazilian society, but it has become even more problematic over the last three decades with the disastrous deindustrialization of the Brazilian economy and the decisive interference of agribusiness representatives in the national congress and daily politics.

In that difficult and confusing context, the publication of Agriculture and Industry in Brazil: Innovation and Competitiveness could be a useful contribution to the national and international debates on the impact and prospects of Brazilian agribusiness. The book was launched by Columbia University Press in 2020 and is the English version of a text originally published in Portuguese in 2018. It was written by two highly qualified scholars. One is the distinguished American economist and Brazilianist Albert Fishlow, emeritus professor at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University and, over the years, a constant voice on issues of Brazilian development and policymaking. His coauthor is José Eustáquio Ribeiro Vieira Filho, a senior researcher at the prominent Institute of Applied Economic Research (IPEA) with recent managerial experience in the Brazilian Ministry of Agriculture. The publication also includes a foreword by José A. Scheinkman, a Brazilian economist with a long career in the United States at the universities of Chicago, Columbia, and Princeton.

The book is well printed and attractively bound, making it altogether an attractive volume. The authors are experienced economists, and the topic is of great academic and more-than-academic relevance. After an introduction, the next chapters describe the macroeconomic evolution of the Brazilian economy, the theory of institutional change (which informs subsequent chapters), the induction of innovation, the organization of the national Agricultural Research Corporation (Embrapa) by the military dictatorship in 1973, the growth of agricultural exports in the last twenty-five years, the constant opening of new agricultural frontiers, the supposed backwardness of small-scale family agriculture, and the contrast between agribusiness and the oil and aviation industries. Nonetheless, the overall result is rather disappointing, not because of the quality of the information provided or the analysis of agriculture outputs but because of the one-sided, uncritical overvaluation of agribusiness records.

This sequence of chapters apparently offers a comprehensive assessment of the supposed renovation of Brazilian agriculture and the alleged knowledge-intensive basis of agribusiness. However, the book is basically permeated by a tautological argument, as it reduces innovation to narrow gains in productivity and massive commodity exports. It betrays the limitation of the economic conceptualization of innovation, productivity, and success divorced of struggles and conflicts on the ground. It is no surprise that economists tend to reduce the multifaceted reality of the world to elegant mathematical equations that greatly fragment and decontextualize socioecological relations and interactions. As a result, the book fails to embrace the extensive socioecological contradictions of Brazilian agribusiness and mounting political disputes. The text also reveals a strong ideological belief of the authors in deregulation, market-based globalization, and the perverse international division of labor that gave Brazil the impoverished role of exporter of primary goods. There is nothing in the book about the embarrassing inability of Brazilian agribusiness to provide effective responses to food insecurity, the concentration of land ownership, and the widespread violence in the countryside (especially the crimes committed against peasants, laborers, and indigenous peoples that remain unpunished because of the political manipulation imposed by farmers and corporations).

The authors make reference to climate change, the fascist policies of President Jair Bolsonaro, and the disruptive advance of new agriculture frontiers; however, they also repeat the fantasy that the conversion of acid tropic soils into soybean and sugarcane fields was a major agronomic success (in effect, it only increased the dependency of Brazilian agriculture on foreign inputs and imported technology). Likewise, the writers classify small-scale family farming as a low productivity and outdated form of agriculture, ignoring its decisive role in the production of food and creation of jobs in Brazil. The two economists recognize that the national state has sponsored the development of new technologies and the strategic pursuit of innovation but also express their unmitigated preference for neoliberal policies and the need to reorganize the state apparatus according to the priorities of agribusiness, corporations, and finance. There is an important reference in the book to the famous "Dutch disease" (economic concentration on a single sector), but another book is necessary to explain the "Brazilian disease," which is the reduction of agriculture to a rentist economic activity, controlled by a small fraction of its hierarchical society, that is increasingly relegating Brazil and its economy to a perennially subordinate position.

The future of Brazilian democracy is now being tried and tested, more than anywhere else, across rural production areas and cannot be hijacked by very prejudiced interpretations of development and modernization. On the contrary, real innovation in Brazil can be found in the agriculture practiced by peasants and indigenous peoples in highly adverse politico-economic conditions. Unfortunately, all that is overlooked in this book, as in many other similar publications that support the retrograde Brazilian agribusiness sector.

Citation: Antonio Ioris. Review of Fishlow, Albert; Vieira Filho, José Eustáquio Ribeiro, Agriculture and Industry in Brazil: Innovation and Competitiveness. H-Sci-Med-Tech, H-Net Reviews. September, 2022. URL:

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