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Econographics February 14, 2024

Brazil aims to advance its bid for leadership of the Global South through food security

By Josh Lipsky and Mrugank Bhusari

Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has put food security front and center of the international agenda as his country convenes leaders for the G20 in 2024 and COP30 in 2025. Brasília is positioning itself alongside Beijing and New Delhi as a leader of the Global South. But while China and India have both focused on emerging technologies and digital infrastructure, Brazil is adding to those priorities with a focus on agriculture.

Brazil’s breadbasket to the Global South

Beginning in the 1970s, both the Brazilian government and private entities invested heavily in agricultural innovations, leading to the development of more resilient crop varieties. Along with the expansion of farmland and widespread adoption of double cropping, the investments significantly enhanced agricultural productivity and gave Brazil an edge over other farming nations.

Fast forward to 2022 and Brazil has become the world’s second-largest exporter of agricultural products. It leads the world in soy, meat, coffee and sugar exports and is the second-largest exporter of oilcake and corn. Several large economies, emerging markets in particular, now heavily rely on Brazil to secure their food needs.

The benefits granted by MERCOSUR, a regional trade bloc within South America, make Brazil a prime source of agriculture for Argentina. Many Asian and African countries in the G20 are large consumers of soybeans, corn, and meat—all commodities where Brazil has a large market share. The United States, Mexico, and Canada in turn barely source any agriculture from Brazil as they source the majority of their food imports from one another as a result of the benefits granted by USMCA. Most European countries similarly import the majority of their agriculture from other European countries in the single market. 

Across the G20 economies, China is the most reliant on Brazil for agriculture, buying up a quarter of all Brazilian exports including most of its soy and beef. Brazil’s rise as an agripower since the 1970s aligned neatly with the population boom in China and the growing concern of the Chinese Communist Party over how to secure food for its population. But the real push came in the last decade as Beijing looked for agriculture suppliers other than the United States following intensification of trade tensions. 

To help Brazil increase its capacity and to reduce logistical costs, the state-owned China Oil and Foodstuffs Corporation (COFCO) invested over $2.3 billion, amounting to about 40 percent of its worldwide investments, in Brazil’s agricultural infrastructure since 2014. A key investment is at the Port of Santos, where a terminal expansion will take the company’s own capacity from 3 million to 14 million tonnes. Further cooperation in Brazilian railways, waterways, and farmland restoration is on the agenda.

Lula’s leverage is his history 

By itself, influence in the agriculture sector vis-a-vis emerging markets doesn’t provide a pathway to leadership of the Global South. Agriculture is not like semiconductors; food is an absolutely necessary resource for physical survival. Russia’s sudden blockage of the Black Sea in 2022, for instance, led to massive global grain shortages that created significant price spikes for food around the world. Moreover, the United States remains the world’s largest exporter of agriculture and for several countries in the G20, it remains the largest supplier. Lastly, although Brazil supplies about a fifth of global corn exports, it has relatively little weight in the global market for grains like wheat and rice, two critical food items for developing economies.

But Lula and Brazil nevertheless bring unique credibility with developing and advanced economies on the subject of food security.  

When he first came to office in 2003, Lula launched the ‘Fome Zero’ (Zero Hunger) programme, a series of coordinated large-scale government interventions that resulted in Brazil’s removal from the United Nations’ Hunger Map in 2014. Throughout the 2000s, Lula’s Brazil also mobilized budgetary, legislative, organizational, and narrative channels to orient its foreign policy toward hunger-reduction abroad. 

Since his return to power in 2023, Lula has once again made hunger a domestic priority. He has consistently raised the issue internationally. Now, his moment has come. As President of the G20, he has announced Brasília’s intention to launch a Global Alliance Against Hunger and Poverty at the Leaders Summit in November.

Both Brazil and the global economy have evolved since Lula was last in power. But the country possesses decades of trade and technical assistance relationships with developing economies, the know-how in the sector, and a track-record in hunger-reduction. Chronic hunger and famine remain real prospects for a tenth of the global population and developing countries will likely see Lula’s Brazil to act as a reliable representative in trying to bring together a global consensus on the path forward.

In recent years, China and India have both positioned themselves as leaders of the Global South. Now, the leader of the former is focused on his troubled domestic economy and the leader of the latter has an election on his hands. Meanwhile Lula is about to host the world twice—once for the G20 this year and then again for COP30 in 2025. If Brazil delivers tangible, material, and clearly observable benefits on food security, it will cement its position as a key leader of the Global South.

Josh Lipsky is the senior director of the Atlantic Council GeoEconomics Center and a former adviser to the International Monetary Fund.

Mrugank Bhusari is assistant director at the Atlantic Council GeoEconomics Center focusing on multilateral institutions and the international role of the dollar.

This post is adapted from the GeoEconomics Center’s weekly Guide to the Global Economy newsletter. If you are interested in getting the newsletter, email

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Image: Silo bag in a farm with fence and field. Rural, countryside image, agricultural industry scene