BRASILIA, BRAZIL — Brazil, among the world’s agricultural powerhouses as a producer of corn and soybeans, is looking to become self-sufficient in the production of wheat within the next decade, according to a report from the Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS) of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Brazil, with 215 million people, consumes more than 12 million tonnes of wheat and wheat-based products per year, which is more than the country's national production of roughly 9.5 million tonnes projected for marketing year 2024-25. As a result, Brazil is among the world’s top 10 importers of the grain, relying particularly on Argentina, which has been responsible for more than 80% of Brazil’s imports.

In the early 2000s, Brazil’s wheat production was able to meet just over 30% of the national demand. However, by the 2022-23 harvest, this self-sufficiency rate had increased to 80%, a significant improvement. Despite this progress, the country still faces a gap between production and consumption.

“Farmers and researchers have made considerable strides in increasing crop production, yield, and planted area,” the FAS said. “However, there are still significant challenges to overcome to achieve the Brazilian government’s ambitious plan of wheat self-sufficiency within the next decade.”

Wheat self-sufficiency could be achieved by cultivating land in the Cerrado biome, a savanna-like region in Central Brazil, the FAS said. The government aims to expand wheat production in almost 4 million hectares of degraded land and use adapted wheat seed varieties that are resistant to dry weather and soil conditions prevalent in the region.

Wheat production in Brazil is primarily focused in the southern states, including Rio Grande do Sul and Paraná, where the climate is predominantly temperate and subtropical. These two states contribute to approximately 80% of the country's annual wheat production. 

The Cerrado biome is the second largest in Brazil and covers around 22% of the country's total area. The Cerrado region is characterized by two well-defined seasons: a rainy period lasting from September/October to March/April and a dry season from April/May to September/October.

“Wheat’s growth cycle lasts between 100 and 170 days, typically depending on the cultivar type, weather, and soil conditions,” the FAS said. “The Cerrado region in Brazil has well-defined seasons, with six months of rain followed by six months of drought. This makes it ideal for tropical wheat cultivation, as better outlined weather patterns help combat diseases and pests and assist in the choice of planting system, be it rainfed or irrigated.”

In the early 1990s, the Brazilian government stopped intervening in wheat purchases, and the sector came under pressure to improve the quality of the grain. As a result, the Brazilian wheat production system underwent significant changes to ensure compliance with international market parameters. 

The development of cultivars, which until then was dominated by soft wheat, was quickly replaced by bread wheat, which has higher quality. This allowed the utilization of industrialized products with specific characteristics in human nutrition, such as bread, biscuits, thickeners, and other foods for human consumption. Additionally, wheat cultivars of higher quality for animal feed were developed that contain higher levels of protein, fiber, and amino acids. 

The Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (EMBRAPA) has also been developing wheat cultivars specifically resistant to drought and heat, which are ideal for planting in the Cerrado region since the 1980s. While there have been many varieties adopted in the region to date, four of them have been the main ones: BRS 264, BRS 394, BRS 404, and BRS 254.

Farmers in Central Brazil have expressed interest in planting tropical wheat as a second-season crop after corn or soybeans, but face challenges such as high input costs for poor soil, high incidences of wheat blast, purchasing equipment for wheat production and logistics. As a result, many farmers prefer to continue investing in more reliable and more risk-averse crops.

Another significant hurdle is the lack of large mills that can process wheat in the Cerrado region. The state of Minas Gerais alone has a milling capacity of 800,000 tonnes but is estimated to only use 200,000. Mills are traditionally located in the northern and northeast regions of Brazil due to the location of ports and in the southern and southeast regions, where most of the production is located.

“The path of transforming Brazil from one of the major importers to self-sufficient in up to a decade, as intended by the Brazilian government, is overlaid with well-known challenges by farmers in the country,” the FAS said. “However, there have been substantial investments to produce cultivars and equipment better suited to the conditions imposed by the Cerrado biome. Considering the history paved by Brazil with corn and soybean, when the country shifted from a net importer in the 1980s to a primary exporter in current days, Brazilian tropical wheat is likely to gain momentum, as the other grains before it.”