It is a Tuesday night in late September, and an upmarket restaurant in São Paolo is packed with diners. The atmosphere is buzzing.
Fogo de Chao offers churrasco, a kind of Brazilian barbeque. A meal for two here costs over 300 real (around 12,000 yen).
"Our most popular item is, of course, the picanha," says the waiter with a grin as he cuts portions of meat the size of my palm. Only the exterior is browned; the inner meat remains red and rare. It has a surprisingly soft texture and melts in the mouth. Picanha is meat taken from the lower back to the rump area, just 1 percent of a cow's weight.
The company running this restaurant was established in 1979 in the southern city of Porto Alegre. It now operates more than 20 outlets across Brazil and in the United States.
Brazilians are the world's second largest consumers of beef. There are some 200 million head of cattle in Brazil, which is roughly equal to the number of people living there.
It has become the world's sixth-largest economy, and beef consumption has quadrupled since the 1970s. As demand grew, so did the company behind Fogo de Chao.
MEAT AND BEANS
In sloping pasture amid the undulating hills of Pilar do Sul, a town two hours west of São Paolo, a herd of white cows munched grass.
On a 250-hectare farm, second-generation Japanese Brazilian Akira Morioka, 54, grows crops including eucalyptus, soy beans and corn. He keeps around 100 beef cattle on another farm, 50 hectares in size. In Brazil, where some farms have more than 10,000 head of cattle, Morioka's is small.
He sends one-and-a-half-year-old stud bulls raised here to a farm managed by his older brother, 1,000 kilometers away in the central state of Goiás. That farm is 100 hectares in size and has a circular design known as a "center pivot." About 5,000 beef cattle graze there.
The Morioka Brothers are planning to expand their farm in Goiás to three times its current size.
"Brazil's middle class is growing, and more people are eating expensive cuts of meat like tenderloin," says Akira.
In addition to strong domestic demand, exports are further boosting farmers' fortunes.
In July 2012, a meat processing company which the Moriokas supply was visited by a Russian government delegation, with a view to purchases. The visitors checked quality control, including how newborn cattle are given identification numbers. The Moriokas are also looking for export opportunities, and in 2011 began tagging the ears of newborn cattle with identification numbers.
Brazil's land mass is 23 times that of Japan. It has become one of the world's foremost agricultural producers. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says the volume of Brazilian beef produced every year is second only to U.S. output. Around 15 percent of that is exported, Brazil's biggest customer is Russia, the world's fourth-largest consumer of meat.
Brazil is also an increasingly prominent producer of soy beans. Soybean meal, the solids left after beans are crushed for their oil, is a valuable source of protein for livestock feed.
Data from the Food and Agriculture Organization shows that the U.S. share of the world's total soy bean production fell from 70 percent in 1970 to less than 30 percent in 2012. In contrast, Brazil had a negligible 3 percent share in 1970, but is forecast to exceed 30 percent this year—and overtake the United States.
Brazil is forecast to export 39 million tons of beans in the 12 months from October this year, the largest volume of any soy exporter. Most of its output will end up in China, which is overwhelmingly the world's largest consumer of meat.
A factor behind Brazil's rapid rise as an agricultural superpower has been the development of the central Cerrado region. This name means, in Portuguese, "closed." Its soil is acidic, rendering it largely unsuitable for cultivation. However, successive governments have worked since the 1970s to improve the soil and cattle bloodlines—with a view to increasing the amount of usable land.
"Grain production, which previously was concentrated in North America, has been split between north and south due to Brazil's growth," says Yutaka Hongo, 64, a visiting senior adviser for the Japan International Cooperation Agency. Hongo has been involved in the development of the Cerrado for around 20 years.
"If it can be diversified further by spreading to places like Africa, production will stabilize and grain prices will be kept in check, which will enable greater meat consumption even in poor countries," Hongo said.
Japan has been deeply engaged in the development of the Cerrado since 1974, when Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka visited Brazil and declared Japan's support for it. Grain prices soared internationally in the 1970s, and Tanaka's gesture was aimed in part at securing imports for Japan. Japan's business community provided financial support; and technical experts and other personnel were dispatched to the Cerrado. At one time, "Doko," a type of soy bean named after former Keidanren (Japan Business Federation) president Toshiwo Doko, became one of Brazil's leading soybean varieties.
Brazil has huge potential for growth. Surveys of virgin land that might in future be farmed show Brazil has almost three times more potential farmland than Japan. Indeed, it possesses some of the last uncultivated territory on the planet.
However, livestock and soy bean farming in central Brazil has come under attack, too: Activists blame farmers for deforestation in the Amazon region, and are calling for a balance between development and conservation.
In the Amazon river basin, home to the world's largest tropical rainforest, terrapins and crocodiles have long been staples of the local diet. I visited a restaurant in Manaus, deep in the Amazon region, which served some local "specialities."
O Lenhador is 20 minutes from downtown Manaus. Its somewhat dim interior was illuminated by fluorescent lighting, and there were few customers despite it being a Sunday night. Food is served buffet style, where golden plates were laden with meat dishes in hues of red and yellow.
My eyes were initially drawn to a meat covered in a reddish sauce. I was told it was crocodile. I took a bite, and found it to be quite firm, like chicken, and quite tasty.
Next up was turtle stew. It was beige in color; the meat had been slowly simmered. Its texture was chewy, suggesting a large amount of collagen. Salt, pepper, red wine and other seasonings gave it a surprisingly agreeable flavor. Placed next to it was an upturned turtle shell around 50 centimeters in diameter, which was being used to serve another delicacy.
A more intimidating option was a different turtle dish described as "meat and blood stew." It was thick and reddish-black, and looked grotesque. I timidly took a taste, and was struck by its bean-stew-like flavor. However, to be honest, the realization I was eating turtle meat—and an unpleasant aftertaste—meant I could not endure another mouthful.
Together with drinks, the meal came to 80 real (around 3,200 yen, or $39) per person, which is quite an outlay in Brazilian terms.
INDIAN BEEF EXPORTS
In India, where approximately 80 percent of the population is Hindu, the slaughter of cows is mostly considered taboo. However, the country is set this year to become the world's largest exporter of beef.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that India will export 1.68 million tons of beef in 2012, overtaking nations like Australia and Brazil at less than 1.4 million tons each. India's export volume is expected to increase further next year, reaching 2.16 million tons.
There are approximately 320 million head of cattle in India. This comprises a third of the global total of around 1 billion. Economic growth is boosting domestic demand for dairy products, which in turn is driving a steady rise in the number of cattle.
The degree of adherence to Hindu teachings varies from sect to sect and between the various levels in the faith's hierarchy, but many Indians obey its commandments and do not eat beef.
Even domestic law prohibits—in principle—the slaughter of cattle. However, this protection is only intended to apply to cows and stud bulls used for breeding. Some states permit the slaughter of bullocks used to plow land. And water buffalo are unprotected by law. Most of the beef exported from India, mainly to the Middle East and Southeast Asia, is water buffalo.
Water buffalo meat is characteristically tougher than regular domesticated cattle. Rather than cooking and eating it without preparation, it is more commonly used in boiled or stewed dishes after being hung up to dry.
Some of this meat makes its way to Japan. However, the meat's origin is often blurred, partly to avoid breaking the religious taboo.
"In Indian eating and drinking establishments, steaks are called 'buffalo steaks' even if they're actually beef," says Tokyo University of Foreign Studies professor and Indian religious history specialist Jun Takashima.
And strong overseas demand for beef has been stoking dissatisfaction among some Indian entrepreneurs over the law banning the slaughter of cows.
"Moves are afoot to begin exports of meat from cows, which until now has been considered taboo," said one India expert.
(This article was written by Daisuke Igarashi and Etsushi Tsuru)
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