Agriculture could help preserve Brazil’s native vegetation

. Aug 13, 2018
More efficient farming key to conserving Cerrado's native vegetation brazil agribusiness More efficient farming key to conserving Cerrado's native vegetation

In 2015, one region of Brazil was nicknamed “the last agricultural frontier of the world.” Known as “Matopiba,” this unofficial territory comprises 337 municipalities in four states (Maranhão, Tocantins, Piauí, and Bahia), adding up to 73 million acres and 25 million inhabitants. Between 2000 and 2014, it increased its agricultural production by 239 percent. Matopiba’s main crops are soybeans, cotton, and corn, all of which are grown on large properties. The region was responsible for producing 10 percent of the country’s grains in 2014/15.

For a country that has always relied on farming to strengthen its economy, the emergence of a “new” agricultural region is excellent news. But, of course, there is a hidden cost. To expand its frontiers, Brazil will have to deal with the environmental destruction that it can cause and is already generating. Earlier this year, the Brazilian Institute for the Environment (Ibama) launched an operation in partnership with federal prosecutors to halt illegal deforestation in the region known as the Cerrado, a tropical savanna biome found in central Brazil, recognizable by its abundance of small trees and bushes.

</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Seventy-eight companies and individuals received fines for financing and trading soybeans grown in forbidden regions. The fines amounted to more than BRL 105 million. Punishment hit multinational companies such as Cargill and Bunge. Operation Shoyo&#8217;s first phase, in 2016, fined Santander bank BRL 47.5 million for financing grain plantations on protected lands.</span></p> <h2>Cerrado under threat</h2> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">The <a href="">destruction of the Amazon</a> is a serious concern, but the Cerrado&#8217;s vegetation has also been facing environmental danger. Of all the carbon emissions in Brazil, 11 percent comes from the degradation of this central Brazilian vegetation, the second largest biome in South America. It is twice what the industry emits, <a href="">according</a> to a Consortium of NGOs. </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Data from 2017 shows that the <a href="">cerrado lost 9,500 square kilometers</a> in 2015, 52 percent more than what the Amazon lost in the same period. </span><span style="font-weight: 400;">Deforestation of the cerrado hits the Matopiba region harder than others. Approximately 90 percent of the area of the &#8220;new frontier&#8221; is within the cerrado. </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Another problem with agricultural activities in Matopiba is low productivity. A study published by the Amazon Environmental Research Institute has shown that the majority of deforestation done in the cerrado to give way to agriculture is economically irrational. Almost a third of the soybean plantations within the cerrado are in areas that have high or medium productive risks.</span></p> <hr /> <p><img loading="lazy" class="alignnone size-full wp-image-7240" src="" alt="crop emissions brazil agribusiness native vegeration" width="640" height="499" srcset=" 640w, 300w, 610w" sizes="(max-width: 640px) 100vw, 640px" /></p> <hr /> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">They are unfit for agriculture. Areas that would be more effective for the <a href="">crops</a> are left out, such as land that was formerly used as pasture. These spots require no deforestation and are much better for growing. Sadly, this is a national trait: 80 percent of all the area used to grow grains has poor productivity. </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Even though the future seems grim, a study shows that Brazilian agriculture could be one of the answers to address these environmental problems. Researchers at the Geoprocessing Lab at the University of São Paulo, the Forest and Agricultural Certification and Management Institute (Imaflora), and the Chalmers University of Technology in Switzerland have published an article with data that demonstrates agriculture&#8217;s high productivity could be used to improve land use and emissions of greenhouse gases.  </span></p> <hr /> <p><img loading="lazy" class="alignnone size-full wp-image-7239" src="" alt="crop emissions brazil agribusiness native vegeration" width="640" height="282" srcset=" 640w, 300w, 610w" sizes="(max-width: 640px) 100vw, 640px" /></p> <hr /> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Their study argues that crops produce more protein than cattle and use a smaller area. This gap has the potential to avoid some of the environmental problems Brazil has been facing. </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Data from the Agricultural Census from 1975 to 2006 is the basis of the study. The objective was to understand the impact of the expansion of farming in Brazil in the last decades. They found that the production of protein from vegetables was 20 times higher than the output from animals. However, agriculture occupies a smaller area. Cattle raising is on a territory 2.6 times larger than the space occupied by crops. </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">According to Vinicius Guidotti de Faria, a geoprocessing specialist at Imaflora and one of the authors of the study, one of the problems is that a significant part of the crops is used to feed the cattle. Vegetables that could be used to feed humans are absorbed by the production of beef, pork, and poultry, he says. In this production chain there are fewer nutrients but a product with a higher value.  &#8220;A kilo of beef, pork or poultry is easier to sell than a kilo of soybeans. The increase in demand and the higher profitability of cattle cause the crop production to be directed to beef production,&#8221; says Mr. de Faria. </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Prioritizing cattle creates a model of farming that favors feeding livestock and &#8220;steals&#8221; areas that could be used to grow crops such as rice, beans, potatoes, and manioc. </span></p> <h2>An attitude adjustment?</h2> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Can this problem be solved? Farming will always have some impact, but it is possible to reduce the damages and rebuild the Brazilian model to be more sustainable. Sugarcane could be an example worth following, as its production is under ecological zoning, de Faria says. It is forbidden to grow it in the Amazon or the Pantanal wetlands. Brazil could adopt the same model for other activities. But, in the researcher&#8217;s opinion, consumers can have the most significant impact. </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Consumption of meat in Brazil is higher than what is recommended by the World Health Organization. If the consumer realizes the impact he or she causes by eating meat he or she might make better choices. Pork and poultry, he says, are better for the environment because of their higher productivity and reduced greenhouse emissions in comparison to beef. &#8220;Most people don&#8217;t know how a piece of steak ends up on their plates,&#8221; de Faria believes.

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Diogo Rodriguez

Rodriguez is a social scientist and journalist based in São Paulo.

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