Developing countries around the world face a challenge that pits economic growth against environmental protection. As they increase their agricultural production, they often convert the forest to cropland and pasture. But the large-scale felling of trees weakens the world’s ability to prevent further deterioration of the climate and loss of biodiversity.
Brazil presents a key example. The country is home to the largest area of rainforest in the world – approximately 1.2 million square miles, an area more than 16 times the size of Nebraska. The Amazon contains vast tracts of tropical forests which, when converted to agriculture, release a huge amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, worsening climate change.
Increasing agricultural production is a national priority for Brazil, the world’s largest exporter of soybeans. Since the 1990s, agricultural encroachment has eroded large areas of the country’s rainforest. From 2015 to 2019, the Amazon Basin accounted for a third of the land converted for Brazilian soybean expansion.
A recently published four-year study by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and its research partners in Brazil identifies a way forward that would allow Brazil to strengthen its agricultural sector while preserving the rainforest. The scientists’ recommendations are broadly applicable to other developing countries facing a similar challenge.
“In the current environment of high grain prices and food supply disruptions, we believe it is essential that major crop-producing countries reassess their potential to produce more on existing cropland,” the authors wrote. in an article published October 10 in the journal Nature Sustainability. “Without a focus on intensifying agricultural production in the existing agricultural zone, coupled with strong institutions and policies that prevent deforestation in border agricultural areas, it would be difficult to protect the last strongholds of forests and biodiversity. of the planet while being sensitive to economic conditions. aspirations of countries to develop.
Since 2000, moratoriums and incentives have been used to slow deforestation in Brazil. However, the sharp rise in commodity prices and political pressure to recover quickly from the combined impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine have placed the Amazon rainforest under increased threat. If current trends continue, Brazil will convert about 57 million acres to soybean production over the next 15 years, with about a quarter of the expansion occurring on ecologically fragile lands such as rainforest and savannah.
Yet banning cropland expansion would cost Brazil an estimated $447 billion in lost economic opportunities through 2035.
The study led by Patricio Grassini, Sunkist Emeritus Professor of Agronomy and Associate Professor in the Nebraska Department of Agronomy and Horticulture, shows how it might be possible for Brazil to increase agricultural production without converting more rainforest and of savanna in crops. With a carefully managed strategy to intensify production on existing acreage, the country could increase annual soybean production by 36% by 2035 while reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 58% from current trends.
Grassini and his co-authors outline a three-pronged “scaling up” strategy that calls for:
* Significant increase in soybean crop yields.
* Cultivate a second crop of corn on soybean fields in certain regions.
* Raise more cattle on smaller pastures to free up more land for soybeans.
Brazil’s tropical and subtropical climates make it possible to grow two crops on the same land during the growing season in most areas, Grassini said. Moreover, “livestock production is huge in Brazil,” he said, “and our study shows that there is a great opportunity for Brazil to increase livestock-based production systems and, in doing so, to free up some of the area currently used for animal production and use that land to produce more soybeans.
Detailed project modeling indicates that by 2035, the strategy could increase Brazil’s soybean production by 36%. At the same time, Grassini said, Brazil could “completely eliminate deforestation and essentially reduce the amount of carbon dioxide equivalents released into the atmosphere, thereby helping to mitigate climate change.”
“This approach strengthens agriculture while protecting fragile ecosystems that are important from a climate change mitigation perspective as well as biodiversity conservation,” he said.
To determine how yields could be improved on existing Brazilian farmland, scientists examined soybean production in four key regions: the Pampas and Atlantic Forest regions along the Atlantic coast, where the crop soy has been going on for about 50 years, and the Amazon. and the Cerrado regions in the interior of Brazil, where soybean production began after the turn of the 21st century. The analysis made extensive use of the Global Yield Gap Atlas previously developed by Grassini and colleagues in Nebraska. The atlas is the world’s leading database of high-quality agronomic data, covering over 15 major food crops in over 75 countries.
“By showing that it is possible to produce more on existing agricultural land,” the scientists wrote, “this study brings real solutions to the table and can have a massive impact in helping Brazil produce more while protecting the environment. ‘environment”.
Success in the twin goals of agricultural expansion and forest protection will require strong institutions, appropriate policy and enforcement to ensure that these productivity gains are effectively translated into forest preservation, Grassini warned. Nevertheless, the intensification approach can help achieve a reasonable balance between agricultural production and the protection of fragile ecosystems.
Grassini’s team calculated three scenarios in the four key regions: “business as usual”, where existing trends would continue; “no expansion of cropland”, where the conversion of additional land would be prohibited; and “intensification”, where measures would be taken to increase yields, encourage second cropping and concentrate beef production. They concluded that the intensification strategy would allow Brazil to realize 85% of the projected gross income from second-crop soybeans and corn, compared to current trends, while reducing global warming by 58%.