Agriculture is big business in Brazil. From sugar to coffee, to soybeans and everything in between, the country's farming sector has become a juggernaut on the world stage over the past 40 years. And the sector's political clout inside Brazil has grown along with it, unlike its counterparts in the United States and European Union. Today, the country's farm lobby backs close to half of the lower house's deputies, representing a level of support that is unlikely to change no matter who emerges as the victor in general elections in October. With such power inside and outside Congress, the lobby is well-placed to dictate Brazil's domestic agricultural policies — and, increasingly, even some of its foreign ones.
The farm lobby has been declining in places such as the United States and the European Union over the past decade. In Europe, the agricultural sector has been pushing for greater protectionism in trade deals. But it's a different story in Brazil, where the farm lobby is becoming increasingly powerful and demanding greater trade liberalization in deals involving Mercosur.
An Export Juggernaut
The growing importance of agriculture is based on two main factors: land availability and interest from overseas, especially China. Brazil still boasts significant chunks of unexploited, arable land — a resource that prompted President Michel Temer to sign a law permitting the sale of 10 million hectares of public land in the northern state of Roraima for agriculture. The other factor is the Chinese demand for Brazilian farm products, such as soybeans and corn. China became the country's top trade partner in 2010, and their commercial ties have continued to deepen. In the past eight years, Brazil's exports to China have increased nearly 60 percent, with soybeans accounting for more than 40 percent of the figure. Based on the value of Brazil's exports, the agricultural sector represented 45 percent of that total last year, and the number is expected to reach 50 percent this year. The story is similar in terms of gross domestic product. Two decades ago, the sector accounted for just 15 percent of GDP, but that figure now stands at 23.5 percent.
Parliamentarians in Their Pocket
The growing importance of the farming industry has had profound implications for the makeup of the country's Congress. In the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house, 234 of 513 deputies belong to the farm bloc, while in the Senate, 27 of 81 deputies are backed by the agricultural sector. But the lobby's power over Brazil's elected representatives can best be seen by looking past the number of lawmakers in its stable and at how its support comes from parties across the political spectrum. Members vary from the center-right Democrats to the center-left Democratic Labor Party to the Green Party.
With such influence, the farm lobby has forced the government to reduce tax debts, make labor and environmental rules more flexible and provide licenses permitting the expansion of Brazil's agricultural frontier. The lobby has also supported greater deregulation of the use of pesticides through a bill that would put the Agriculture Ministry in charge of approving new insect-control products rather than the health or environment ministries while also preventing cities and states from introducing legislation to restrict their use.
This broad ideological base allows the farm bloc in both houses of Congress to pass legislation more easily and pressure the executive, regardless of who holds the presidency, to adopt its agenda. Most recently, Temer appointed Sen. Blairo Maggi, one of Brazil's largest soybean producers, as his agriculture minister. And regardless of who wins October's presidential vote, proponents of the farm lobby are well-placed to earn positions of power, because candidates from both the center left and center right have picked people from the agricultural sector as their prospective vice presidents.
The center-left Ciro Gomes, one of the front-runners for president, has named Sen. Katia Abreu, a farmer and the former head of Brazil's National Confederation of Agribusiness, as his running mate, while center-right candidate Geraldo Alckmin has picked farm bloc member Ana Amelia. Ultra-conservative lawmaker Jair Bolsonaro — the favorite in the election — even proposed a merger between the agriculture and environment ministries as a means of making environmental laws more flexible.
The only presidential candidate who is likely to clash with the farm lobby is environmentalist Marina Silva. But even if she wins, the farm lobby is likely to maintain — if not increase — its strength in the simultaneous congressional elections, ensuring that it will continue to influence domestic and trade policies.
The robustness of the agricultural sector — in stark contrast to the waning fortunes of manufacturing — will likely ensure that Brasilia's espousal of liberalization is here to stay.
Shifting the Debate on Trade
Naturally, the reach of the farm lobby goes beyond domestic politics. Due to its ever-growing share of total exports, the agricultural sector now wields major influence over Brasilia's international trade policy. In the past, Brazil has pursued protectionist measures in its handful of trade agreements with other countries and economic blocs — mostly due to the influence of the country's manufacturing industry. But because the agricultural sector is a prominent offensive trade interest for Brazil, exporting some of the largest volumes of sugar, coffee, meat, soybean and corn anywhere in the world, the farm lobby has backed the Common Market of the South's (Mercosur) free trade negotiations with several countries and economic blocs outside South America.
Regardless of who wins October's elections, the farm lobby's political significance will continue to rise, especially as the agricultural sector contributes more and more to the bottom line through its exports. Ultimately, the strength of the agricultural sector — in stark contrast to the waning fortunes of manufacturing — will likely ensure that Brasilia's espousal of liberalization is here to stay.