Study proposes a road map to expand and intensify Brazilian agriculture
August 08, 2018
By Elton Alisson | Agência FAPESP – Overall, Brazil’s agricultural output has increased in recent decades, but cropping has surpassed livestock raising in terms of productivity and efficienct based on land use and greenhouse gas emissions per ton of protein produced. The gap between crop and livestock productivity and efficiency represents the potential for improvement in land use and the deployment of other food production resources in Brazil.
This is a key finding of a study by researchers at the Geoprocessing Laboratory (Geolab) of the University of São Paulo’s Luiz de Queiroz College of Agriculture (ESALQ-USP) in collaboration with colleagues at Brazil’s Institute for Agricultural and Forest Management and Certification (IMAFLORA) and Sweden’s Chalmers University of Technology.
The study is part of the Atlas of Brazilian Agriculture project, which is supported by FAPESP. The results of the study have been published in Elementa – Science of the Anthropocene, an open-access environmental science journal issued by the University of California in the United States.
“We found that Brazilian cropping has been far more efficient than livestock raising in recent decades in terms of both protein production per hectare and greenhouse gas emissions,” said Luís Fernando Guedes Pinto, a researcher with IMAFLORA and a coauthor of the study, in an interview given to Agência FAPESP.
The researchers estimated output, yield and the efficiency of growth for crops and livestock in Brazil in recent decades with the aim of appraising the impact of expansion and intensification of these activities on the goals of zero deforestation and greenhouse gas emission reduction in the agricultural sector.
To this end, they used statistical methods to convert crop and livestock production in the period from 1975 to 2006 into protein and energy. They then correlated the results with estimates of direct greenhouse gas emissions.
Their analysis of the data showed that crop acreage expanded in all regions of Brazil, while the area devoted to pasture decreased in the South and Southeast but increased in the North. Output increased in all regions, led by the Central-West region, but there was a significant difference between cropping and livestock production in terms of growth rates.
In 2006, for example, vegetable protein production was 20 times higher than animal protein production even though croplands occupied an area 2.6 times smaller than that of pasturelands (61 million hectares and 160 million hectares, respectively).
Cropping outperformed livestock in terms of productivity by a factor of 25 in the same year. Cropping produced 0.25 metric tons of vegetable protein per hectare and emitted 2 tons of greenhouse gas (GHG) per ton of protein. Livestock producers obtained 0.01 tons of animal protein per hectare and emitted 283 tons of GHG per ton of protein.
“The 2006 crop harvest was sufficient to supply the protein requirements of 1.3 billion people, while the livestock sector produced enough protein to meet the needs of 66 million people,” Guedes said.
The study also shows that although the poultry and pork production system is more efficient than the beef production system in terms of protein output, it is six times less efficient than cropping as a direct protein source.
“Nevertheless, according to our analysis, the proportion of crop output used as feed for chickens and pigs increased between 1975 and 2006, while the proportion used directly for human food decreased,” Guedes said.
Road to expansion
In the researchers’ view, the findings suggest that for Brazilian agriculture to achieve zero deforestation, efficient land use and more sustainable food systems, it will have to combine the intensification of pasture-cattle systems, the optimization of feed-meat systems, an increase in the share of crop consumption as a source of protein, and the alignment of policies between the forestry and agricultural sectors.
Because these goals are challenging, the researchers offer an “initial road map” to be studied further in the future that consists of a list of recommendations that call for expanding and intensifying agriculture while achieving zero deforestation and simultaneously implementing sustainable land use and food systems.
The recommendations include prioritizing crops as the main source of human food, prioritizing poultry and pork as the main source of animal protein, raising cattle on land that has already been cleared and is not suitable for crop production, and intensifying cattle production in pasture systems on both non-arable marginal land and arable land not needed for cropping.
“The road map can be summed up as prioritizing expansion of crop acreage over expansion of pasturelands. If cropping expands in areas of pasture, deforestation will cease,” Guedes told Agência FAPESP.
“This change can be implemented by means of a robust strategy that combines penalties and incentives and mitigates the risks of a rebound effect.”
The road map, he added, considers only land use and food system efficiency and productivity, leaving aside other key drivers of the expansion and intensification of agriculture such as infrastructure, eating habits, and consumer demand for foods.
Furthermore, the study focused on the period 1975-2006 because of data availability and so could not take into account important recent policy shifts and other changes affecting governance of the sector, especially those designed to reduce deforestation and encourage low-carbon farming.
“The new agricultural census is vitally important because it provides data that can be used as a basis for analyzing the situation today and for forecasting scenarios,” Guedes said.
The Elementa – Science of the Anthropocene article “Asymmetries of cattle and crop productivity and efficiency during Brazil´s agricultural expansion from 1975 to 2006” (doi: 10.1525/elementa.187) by Gerd Sparovek et al. can be read at: elementascience.org/articles/10.1525/elementa.187.
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