A new wheat variety in Brazil thrives in high heat and arid climates. The country hopes it will not only lead the country to self-reliance, but also make it a major contributor to the global supply.
By Nicola Abé and Rogério Vieira (photos)
https://www.spiegel.de-Paulo Bonato holding tropical wheat plants at his farm in Cristalina, Brazil.
Foto: Rogério Vieira / DER SPIEGEL
Paulo Bonato’s freckled hand gently caresses the tips of his wheat plants. The sun is blazing down from the sky and the soil in the central Brazilian savannah is as red as the rusty hull of a ship. Yet the lush, deep green wheat field looks as though it could be in the heart of Bavaria. The wind rustles the dry leaves of the neighboring cornfield, producing a sound akin to a tropical rain shower. But the last time it has rained here, says Bonato, was on May 16, almost three months ago.
Bonato repeatedly grabs a wheat stalk and rubs it between his fingers, checking the ripening grains for potential fungal infection or pests. “I have to see them every day,” he says. “I can feel how they are doing.” Bonato, a 62-year-old farmer and landowner, holds the world record for tropical wheat production. Nobody achieves harvests as bountiful as his.
Bonato is a protagonist in a slow-motion revolution taking place in the surroundings of the Brazilian capital, Brasilia – one which is rapidly gaining momentum. The vision involves Brazil, a country whose climate and soil conditions are really only good for wheat farming in the milder regions to the south, becoming a major producer. President Jair Bolsonaro recently announced that the country will soon be able to take care of its wheat needs on its own. “In 10 years,” he said, “we will export the equivalent of what we consume in Brazil.” Since then, the country’s self-sufficiency has been discussed frequently in the media.
Harvest shortfalls triggered by drought in traditional wheat producers like Canada combined with shortages resulting from the Russian invasion of Ukraine have focused global attention on wheat. Prices for the grain have risen sharply, which has made more cost-intensive farming in subtropical regions more attractive.
“Wheat is one of the most important suppliers of calories for humanity,” says Celso Luiz Moretti, head of the state-owned Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (Embrapa). He hopes that his innovations will ultimately provide an important contribution to global nutrition. “If there are regions of the world where we can still expand the production of foodstuffs, then it is the tropical and subtropical areas.”
The wheat developed by Embrapa could also thrive in Sub-Saharan Africa. Could that mean it is the grain of the future? Is farming in subtropical regions the solution to future food shortages? Or, as environmental activists believe, are the risks too great?
Brazil, which in the 1970s was still importing beef from Europe and beans from Mexico, is now the world’s fourth-largest food exporter. And it was Embrapa that made this revolution possible in the first place: Starting in the early 1970s, researchers began adapting animals and plants from numerous different regions of the world to the subtropical climate, making them more resistant to heat and drought. Over the ensuing decades, they found success with almost everything they focused on, from the Afghanistan mountain goat and milk cows from the Netherlands to corn, soy and wheat.
Nevertheless, the country had lagged on wheat production, having to import millions of tons of the grain every year. That, though, is now to change. And the plan for doing so reserves a significant role for tropical wheat, even if it has thus far only made up just 5 percent (and rising) of the country’s overall production.
Paulo Bonato, the world record producer of tropical wheat, uses the Embrapa-developed wheat strain BRS 264 on his 1,200-hectare (2,965-acre) farm. But that on its own isn’t enough to be successful here: The acidic, infertile soil must be treated with nutrients. Furthermore, the wheat must be watered, and for that, Bonato has created a kind of reservoir that collects water during the rainy season.
“The plants grow extremely quickly here. It takes just 120 days from planting to harvest,” Bonato says, “in contrast to the 300 days in traditional winter wheat farming.” The grain can be planted between crops of corn and soy, for example – which is also good for the soil. “We don’t remove the remains of the plants, the organic material stays in the ground.” That, he says, increases resistance to pathogens.
Bonato’s secret recipe is a mixture of technical know-how and love. He is able to monitor his plants essentially in real time using his phone, with sensors in each of his fields measuring soil moisture at different depths. An app shows temperatures and precipitation, with hourly updates. But Bonato also has a deeply personal relationship with his wheat: “It’s not that I speak with the plants,” he says with a grin, “but I can sense them. Like a mother who can immediately tell if her child is sad.”
Embrapa began researching wheat for tropical climates back in the mid-1980s – with little to show for it early on. The cereal didn’t grow well and its gluten content was too low. Agricultural technician Julio Cesar Albrecht, 60, has been selecting wheat plants for Embrapa since 1985, pollinating those by hand that demonstrate promising characteristics for withstanding droughts or pests, and creating new crossbreeds.
He has considered giving up on more than one occasion. His research has been called into question and he has faced funding cuts. But then, Albrecht reflected on his childhood and the beautiful wheat fields stretching out in front of his family’s home in southern Brazil. He remembered playing hide-and-seek in those fields and recalled the dark, whole-grain bread he would bake with his mother and eat with butter and honey, just as his German ancestors had.
Despite all of the setbacks he encountered, Albrecht never lost his faith in a wheat variety that could thrive in the tropics. On the first Tuesday in August, he is sitting in the sparsely furnished conference room of the local Embrapa office in Planaltina and can hardly hide his pleasure.
Albrecht was intimately involved in producing variant BRS 264, which finally achieved a breakthrough. Since then, tropical wheat production in Brazil has rapidly expanded. Indeed, the savannah-grown variant “can keep up with the best in the world from Argentina and Canada.” At 15 percent, it has a high share of protein and is “excellent for the production of bread,” he says. Albrecht and his colleagues have also developed a variant which, while it doesn’t produce quite the same bountiful yields, can be planted in subtropical regions.
“This is the best year for Brazilian wheat in the last half a century,” says Albrecht. Demand for wheat seed was so great in March and May that supplies ran out. For this year, record harvests of at least 9 million tons are expected, around three-quarters of the country’s needs. “And we have so much more potential.”
Biologist Morgana Bruno, who teaches at the Catholic University of Brasilia, is less pleased with the flourishing tropical agriculture. “The production of foodstuffs is important, of course,” she says. “But the savannah is a fragile ecosystem.” In contrast to the rain forest, she says, protections for the savannah are weak, but the region is one of primary vegetation.
The pelt of an anteater is lying on a table in her laboratory, currently being prepared for teaching purposes, and there are also other samples in the room, including an owl, a capybara and a python, which is lying in a plastic box preserved in alcohol.
“The Brazilian savannah is home to a number of different plant and animal species,” Bruno says. It is also extremely important for the entire country’s water economy, she adds. Numerous rivers have their origin in the subtropical heart of Brazil, Bruno explains, flowing in all directions. “If too much water is used here for farming, the rest of the country will essentially dry out,” she says.
Making the situation even more critical is the fact that the savannah belt is already suffering from reduced precipitation as a result of Amazon deforestation. According to the research collective Mapbiomas, the savannah is likely to see 20 percent less precipitation in the coming years – based on the current state of deforestation, which continues apace. Temperatures are expected to climb by 4 to 6 degrees Celsius.
Embrapa has calculated that 4 million hectares of Brazilian savannah can be planted with tropical wheat in the future. The plan calls for only using areas that have already been turned over to agriculture.
Bruno, though, fears that more land will ultimately be planted. Developments in Brazil, she says, indicate that agricultural expansion isn’t likely to be stopped. “Ultimately, everything depends on demand,” she says. Bruno herself adheres to a vegan diet. Anything else, she says, would be incompatible with the knowledge she has amassed as an ecologist. “We shouldn’t be developing new plants that can be farmed in new climates,” she says. “We should be changing our consumption patterns.”
“The goal is finding a balance,” says Embrapa head Moretti. The Brazilian savannah belt is 204 million hectares in size – though that number includes areas that have already been degenerated. Some 4 million hectares are to be turned over to wheat farming. Moretti believes that is sustainable. He speaks openly about climate change and is adamantly opposed to the clearcutting of the Amazon, which he says is “stupid.” But he believes in technical solutions and that adjustments to agricultural techniques and grain varieties can help to not just make farming more resistant to the climate, but to make it more environmentally sustainable.
Yet even if that goal is met, the question as to who will profit from tropical agriculture remains unanswered. Brazil has clearly demonstrated that boosting agricultural production does not necessarily translate to an end to hunger. The country is a paradox: On the one hand, it is one of the world’s largest food exporters while on the other, 33 million people in the country face food insecurity.
“My greatest hope is that domestic wheat will translate to lower prices,” says ecologist Bruno. “And that everyone will be able to afford to buy bread.”
With reporting by Fernanda Bastos
This piece is part of the Global Societies series. The project runs for three years and is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
The Global Societies series involves journalists reporting in Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe on injustices, societal challenges and sustainable development in a globalized world. A selection of the features, analyses, photo essays, videos and podcasts, which originally appear in DER SPIEGEL’s Foreign Desk section, will also appear in the Global Societies section of DER SPIEGEL International. The project is initially scheduled to run for three years and receives financial support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.