Say “Brazil,” and most folks mentally image the wondrous splendor of either the Amazon River Basin or bronzed beauties cavorting on Rio's beaches in swimwear the width of dental floss. But those images belie what life as a whole is like for the 170 million Brazilians who occupy nearly 50% of the South American continent.

An area blessed with tremendous beauty, natural resources and potential, Brazil is a Third-World country in many respects. Infant mortality rates are high by both world and Latin American standards. Life expectancy is 63 years — 58 years for men.

A significant share of the population is landless. Many live without running water, electricity and adequate health care. On the whole, the transportation system is poor. In some remote areas, the Brazilian government admits that slavery still exists.

Compassion aside, why should U.S. agriculturists, particularly beef producers, take notice? They should care because Brazil plans to use agriculture, and specifically beef production, as a lever to First World status.

BEEF Senior Editor Clint Peck recently spent five days in Brazil as the guest of Brazil's Ministry of Agriculture and its Exporters Promotion Agency. During the trip, Peck and journalists from Europe, Australia, the Far East and Middle East visited with Brazilian agricultural officials and toured export-approved packing plants and ranches.

Peck is no novice to South American agriculture; this was his second trip to Brazil. He's also been to Argentina several times, as well as Peru, Bolivia and Chile.

Brazil's purpose in sponsoring the trip is to lay the public relations groundwork as it gears up to steal markets in Europe, Asia and the Middle East from the U.S. and Australia. Should the U.S. be concerned? Consider this:

Brazil tripled its beef export volume in just three years to a total of 750,000 metric tons (mt). By comparison, the U.S. exported 1,148,248 mt in 2001, down slightly from the previous year's 1,224,572 mt. Nonetheless, in a relatively short time, Brazil has climbed into third place — behind the U.S. and Australia — among the world's largest beef-exporting countries.

Brazil's goal is to be the world's biggest beef exporter by 2005. The country is betting that its abundance of forage, its grass finishing system and cheap labor can deliver what many countries are seeking. In Europe, that means grass-finished, non-implanted beef fed no growth promotants or animal proteins.

On paper, it seems Brazil has tremendous potential.

  • The world's largest beef herd — 165 million head.

  • Nineteen percent of the world's total farmable land of which only about 10% is currently used.

  • Eight river systems that carry about 20% of the world's fresh water.

As noted earlier, however, the country also faces tremendous challenges in realizing its goal of becoming the world's beef export powerhouse. But, Brazil clearly sees the injection of economic vigor into its rural areas as the key to future stability.

This month on page 18 (“Brazil Looks North”), Peck begins his two-part account on Brazil's beef industry and its potential as a world beef competitor. He'll also cover the U.S. perspective, as well as what industry leaders have to say about the challenge.

In addition, you'll find more detail this month on the Brazilian industry by going to www.beef-mag.com. Click on “Brazilian Beef” on our opening page. Also, look for information on how the 2002 farm bill, which at press time had just been signed into law, will affect the beef industry at www.beef-mag.com.