The accidental agro-power: Constructing comparative advantage in Brazil

Kristen Hopewell

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Brazil has emerged as an agro-export powerhouse: from being a net-agricultural importer and food aid recipient as recently as the 1960s and 1970s, it has now become the world’s third largest agricultural exporter, after the US and EU. What is more, Brazil’s new role as a major agricultural trader has provided an important foundation for its enhanced status and influence in global economic governance, as an emerging power and one of the BRICS. This paper analyzes how such a remarkable transformation was brought about. I argue that Brazil’s emergence as an agricultural powerhouse was the result not of its natural factor endowments, but extensive intervention on the part of the Brazilian state that had the effect of constructing a new comparative advantage. This transformation was propelled by state-driven innovation and related policies that opened up massive new areas of the country to agriculture, enabled it to shift to producing goods in direct competition with the world’s dominant agricultural exporters, and generated significant gains in productivity and competitiveness. The irony is that the intention of these policies, initiated in the 1970s, was to foster industrial development in Brazil as part of its import-substitution industrialization program, yet they wound up having precisely the opposite effect – transforming Brazil into one of the world’s dominant agricultural powers.
Original languageEnglish
JournalNew Political Economy
Publication statusPublished - 23 Mar 2016

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