Uruguay Could Feed 50 Million People

September 27, 2014


Thanks to “climate-smart agriculture,” in 10 years the country will be able to produce food for 18 million more people

A physician walks into a New York supermarket, stops at the meat department, sees a cut he likes, takes out his cellphone and scans the QR code on the label. The app informs him when the animal was killed, where it grew up and what it was fed.  The app even provides a link if he wants to learn more about the ranch where it was raised.

This technology is not yet available, but it could become a reality very soon, thanks to programs such as the National Livestock Information System implemented in Uruguay, which provides details on every stage in the raising and processing of an animal, from a farm in the Uruguayan countryside to a supermarket in Manhattan. All of this information on the label is part of the growing demand in developed countries for better information on the origin of foods, the way they are processed and the treatment given to animals used for meat.

50 million

Uruguay wants to take advantage of this opportunity. This country of just three million inhabitants went from producing food for nine million people in 2005 to food for 28 million currently. The goal is to be able to feed 50 million people.

The fact that the 12 million cows in Uruguayan pastures have chips inserted into their ears to collect all of that information is just one of the steps the country is taking to become what officials call “an agriculturally-smart country.” Uruguay’s Minister of Livestock, Agriculture and Fishing, Tabaré Aguerre, was in Washington to share this vision with several organizations, including the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Aguerre became minister just over three years ago. He proposed developing his term around three main issues: rural development with differentiated policies for family farming, an emphasis on adaptation to climate change and capacity-building for soil management.

Sustainable intensification

Boosting production by further exploiting the land and practicing deforestation is relatively easily. In fact, it is the model some nations have followed. Increasing production in a sustainable manner, that is, with little or no impact on the environment, is a true challenge, however.

“We are producing 54% more milk without having increased the land area devoted to dairy farming,” explained Aguerre to illustrate how it is possible to increase production, promote development and protect the environment through what he calls “sustainable intensification.” According to the minister, 63% of producers in Uruguay are “family farmers,” yet they occupy just 15% to 20% of productive lands. For this reason, his vision also includes the participation of these individuals in the benefits of development associated with an agriculturally-smart country.

“Uruguay has a world growth opportunity, but it has to create opportunities for the competitive participation of family farmers so that the opportunity that the world offers is also an opportunity for these smallholder farmers to develop,” he said.

That explains why the government manages the Livestock Information System, for example. The idea is to ensure “that all producers, from those with 10 cows to those with 2,000, have access to the same marketing channels,” said Aguerre.

Satellites against erosion

With respect to soil management, Uruguay created a fully automated system that requires producers to submit a crop rotation plan to maintain the quality of soil nutrients and to prevent erosion. Through satellite images, experts of the Ministry can identify locations at a higher risk for erosion and contact the producer responsible to learn why he has not implemented his crop rotation plan.

This is a crucial step on Uruguay’s road to becoming “agriculturally smart,” because although the country has abundant rainfall, most of it runs off, which triggers erosion. Crop rotation helps to reduce runoff and improve soil quality.

With all of these components, and support from international partners such as the World Bank, Uruguayan officials hope to make agricultural production a real option for economic growth for all Uruguayans.

 “Placing the latest technology at the service of Uruguayan farmers not only benefits farmlands but also creates sustainable economic opportunities for the wider society, for consumers and producers alike, since they all depend one way or another on agriculture,”  said Jesko Hentschel, World Bank Director in Uruguay. For Aguerre, the long-term goal is clear: “That farmers and ranchers have chosen this work because they want to and because it benefits them economically, not simply because they were born in the countryside.”