Agriculture’s Energy: Introduction

The following is an excerpt from the introduction of Agriculture’s Energy: The Trouble with Ethanol in Brazil’s Green Revolution by Thomas D. Rogers, available now wherever books are sold.

From 1900 to 2000, in the midst of dramatic population growth, Brazil experienced a neat demographic inversion. At the same time that it grew by a factor of ten, from 17 million to 174 million, the country’s population moved from 85 percent rural to 85 percent urban. Now one of the most urbanized populations in the world, Brazilians have swelled cities from the far south all the way to the Amazon. Manaus, 1,200 kilometers from the Amazon River’s mouth at the Atlantic, is home to 2 million people. Brazil’s urbanization was a function of multiple forces, but agricultural modernization was perhaps the most decisive. Cities around the globe have grown for similar reasons, as mechanization and increased concentration of production have shrunk the number of small farmers and eroded their margins. The process has blurred boundaries between the urban and rural, as large contingencies of city dwellers try to earn their living as agricultural laborers. Brazil has exemplified these global trends at each stage, from the agricultural transformation to its consequences.

The decades-long population surge into cities paralleled Brazil’s solidification as an agricultural juggernaut; the two processes interacted with and informed each other. Brazil produces greater quantities of agricultural commodities than all but a handful of other countries. It boasts the largest coffee, sugarcane, and orange harvests in the world, the second-largest yields of soy and beef, and a huge proportion of the world’s cotton and other products. Across generations many Brazilians have seen their nation’s size and wealth of natural resources as signs of an “agricultural vocation.” The anthem gestures toward this role, and the recent decades have appeared to confirm it. But the raw numbers speak to a history, rather than an inevitability. Geography is not destiny, and agricultural abundance has a clear if intricate history, one that helps explain other aspects of the country’s past.

From the 1930s through the 1950s, Brazilian presidents aggressively pursued economic development, conceiving of it primarily as a process of industrialization. Their approach broadly followed modernization theory, as articulated most clearly by people like Walter Rostow. This line of thinking positioned agriculture as structurally, not just circumstantially, backward. Developing economies were to move away from agrarian patterns to diversify economically and expand their industrial sectors. The role of agriculture from a development perspective was to feed the industrial masses, not absorb their time or resources. The Brazilian state’s focus on import substitutions, a response to the Depression that mirrored many of its neighbors’, turned many policy makers’ attention away from agriculture. When, in the 1950s and 1960s, foreign experts arrived to supply technical know-how, they remarked on the primitive techniques they found. Brazilian leaders took a new approach in the 1960s, especially after the military toppled a civilian government in 1964. Holding power until 1985, military leaders magnified the role of agriculture in economic growth. Brazil reached high levels of industrial and agricultural productivity by the end of the twentieth century, drawing on the modernizing strategies then spreading globally.

Brazil produces greater quantities of agricultural commodities than all but a handful of other countries.

In several important respects, the Brazilian experience cleaved to a pattern with variants around the world. In the middle of the century, central planning acquired more prominence, and that trend gained momentum alongside the growing importance of economists in policy making. These changes accompanied a new understanding of national economies as self-contained wholes that could be measured and managed. Shortly thereafter, economists began dividing economies into discrete units such as “the agriculture sector.” International aid, especially from the United States, grew across the 1960s and 1970s, reinforcing these categories. The wave of development support coincided with and propelled a period of rapid agricultural modernization that produced an explosion in crop yields subsequently celebrated as the Green Revolution. Partly as a result of that new capacity, Brazil’s dictatorship repositioned agriculture in development planning. When General Ernesto Geisel came to power in 1974, he released the Segundo Plano Nacional de Desenvolvimento (II PND, Second National Development Plan) in which “agriculture . . . is called to play a new role in Brazilian development, with a much more significant contribution to GDP growth.” Geisel’s planners declared that Brazil would “show itself capable of realizing its vocation as a global provider of food and agricultural raw materials.” The regime’s ideology of national strength and security here met longer-term discourses of national destiny.

I analyze this self-conscious turn toward agriculture as a driver of economic development and unearth its roots in the decades before the dictatorship. To expose the consequences of this transition, I focus on a large federal program promulgated in 1975. The National Alcohol Program, known as Proálcool, incentivized the production of fuel ethanol from sugarcane to mix with gasoline and sell as an alternative fuel. Expanded in 1979, Proálcool was the single largest oil-substitution and renewable energy program in the world, drawing attention from international lending institutions and curiosity and envy from other oil-dependent countries. The program officially ended in 1990, though Brazil began another ethanol boom in the early 2000s and continues to produce more of the fuel than any country but the United States. Proálcool was large and consequential, but the military also established regional development bureaucracies, built a nuclear energy program, and pursued a range of other projects aligned with their development vision. The stories of those efforts resonate with the history I tell here.

Thomas D. Rogers is Arthur Blank/NEH Chair in the Humanities and Humanistic Social Sciences and associate professor of Latin American history at Emory University. He is the author of The Deepest Wounds