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Grain production depends on ending deforestation, studies show

  • Recent scientific studies confirm what Brazilian farmers already feel in practice: the uncontrolled production of agricultural commodities is destroying the productivity and profits of agribusiness itself, a cycle researchers are calling “agro-suicide.”
  • Regions such as the southern Amazon and Matopiba (the borderland between the Brazilian states of Maranhão, Tocantins, Piauí and Bahia) in the Cerrado savanna are the most affected by lack of rain, prolonged rains and waves of extreme heat.
  • Resulting financial losses are expected to reach at least $4.5 billion annually by 2050, according to a conservative estimate; if deforestation continues unchecked, damage could reach $9 billion per year.
  • Though grim, the scenario can still be reversed; one recommendation from the study is to adopt a moratorium on soy in the Cerrado, inspired by the Amazon Soy Moratorium.

A series of recent scientific studies have methodologically proven what farmers are already experiencing: in order to guarantee Brazilian grain production, deforestation has to end.

This is the case for soybeans. Brazil is the world’s biggest producer of this oilseed crop, with 36 million hectares of land cultivated for soy and 135 million tons produced annually, representing 37% of the global market.

But the dramatic expansion of soy over the past two decades has led to the deforestation of the Cerrado, Brazil’s tropical savanna, and the Amazon rainforest. And this destruction has made clear that the survival of agribusiness depends on stronger environmental protection, including in policies.

The studies “Conserving the Cerrado and Amazon biomes of Brazil protects the soy economy from damaging warming,” published in World Development, and “Deforestation reduces rainfall and agricultural revenues in the Brazilian Amazon,” published in Nature, are emphatic about this point.

Excessive heat and prolonged droughts, accelerated by record deforestation, are already drastically affecting the productivity of agribusiness and reduced rainfall patterns in such regions as the southern Amazon and Matopiba (the area where the Brazilian states of Maranhão, Tocantins, Piauí and Bahia converge) in the Cerrado.

The losses are piling up: combining the forecasts of the two studies, based on analytical models of data from recent decades and future predictions, Brazilian agribusiness could lose more than $4.5 billion per year, according to a conservative estimate.

In their warnings, researchers call this “agro-suicide,” referring to the circular way in which the unbridled and ill-advised expansion of agricultural commodities is destroying the productivity and profits of agribusiness itself.

It’s not just the farmers who will pay the price for this expansion – so too will Brazilian society and, ultimately, the world at large, the researchers say. Immeasurable impacts will extend to climate change, biodiversity, local communities and potential alternative resources eliminated by the rapid disappearance of biomes.

The irreversible effects of such a scenario could compromise the already slim possibility that the world will be able to slow climate change, as mapped out in the latest IPCC report, which was released in early August.

“The deforestation in the Amazon and the Cerrado has an effect on the local climate that further aggravates the effects of global climate change on the region’s agriculture,” says Gabriel Abrahão, a researcher associated with the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany who participated in the two studies.

A cornfield is inspected during Operation Shoyo Matopiba in April 2018, when Brazil’s Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA) and Federal Public Ministry gave around $100 million Brazilian Reais ($19.2 million) in fines for illegal grain plantations. Image by Vinícius Mendonça/IBAMA.

The scenario for 2050 is grim but can be mitigated

If deforestation continues unchecked, local effects on the climate will combine with global changes and significantly worsen the researchers’ predictions, increasing financial losses up to $9 billion per year by 2050.

“It has already been demonstrated that expanding agricultural production to meet the demands of a growing population in the coming decades is possible without having to deforest even one more hectare, and rather by simply recuperating and improving the use of our existing pastures,” says Abrahão.

One route the researchers propose is to adopt a soy moratorium in the Cerrado, inspired by the much-debated Amazon Soy Moratorium, implemented in 2006 to ensure that soy production would occur only on land already converted for agriculture to reduce deforestation.

Large-scale Brazilian farmers have pushed back heavily on both the existing and potential moratoriums, though European companies are applying pressure by refusing to buy soy from deforested areas – partially in response to the disastrous environmental policies of the Jair Bolsonaro administration, supported by the Parliamentary Agricultural Front (FPA), which holds a majority in Brazil’s congress.

According to Abrahão, the Amazon Soy Moratorium has been very successful and stands as a global example of private sector environmental policy. “It should not only be extended to the Cerrado, but something similar should also be implemented for beef production. This would have a huge effect on reducing deforestation in the two biomes.”

Soy currently represents 49% of Brazil’s planted area and 41% of its agribusiness revenue. Studies confirm that preserving the Amazon and Cerrado is the best way to ensure the sustainability of crops now and in the mid- and long-term.

Although such goals as limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-Industrial levels and ending deforestation seem increasingly out of reach, the research holds that taking action to mitigate catastrophe is better than doing nothing at all.

“There may not be enough time left to reduce deforestation to the point of preserving certain species or preventing major damage to the production in certain regions, but less is always better,” says Abrahão. “And reversing environmental impacts is much more difficult and costly than avoiding them.”

Soybean harvest in Central Brazil. Image by Wenderson Araujo/Trilux.

Greater losses for double harvests

The scenario might turn out to be even worse for farmers who use systems of double harvesting. In much of Brazil, farmers take advantage of the long rainy season to plant two crops in the same year, such as soybeans and then corn. But global climate change and deforestation have shortened the rainy season in key growing regions such as Matopiba and eastern parts of Mato Grosso state.

This might force these farmers to abandon their highly profitable systems and plant just one crop per year, which could mean the loss of nearly half of their incomes.

“There are already reports of farmers finding it difficult to maintain these systems because of the delayed start of the rains,” Abrahão emphasizes. “With rampant deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions, these systems are likely to become unviable in more and more places in the coming decades, starting with the borderland where the states of Mato Grosso, Goiás and Maranhão converge.”

This is the case for Cássio Sitta, a 34-year-old farmer who has a 4,200-hectare farm in Rio Verde, Goiás, where he produces soy, corn, cotton and beans. Sitta is part of a new generation of farmers more concerned with reducing the effects of climate change, and he recalls from both his own childhood memories and reports from his father who moved to the region in the 1980s that the current changes in rainfall patterns have been remarkable. Farmers in his region depend on rain, he says, as the use of irrigation is uncommon.

“We had longer periods of rain,” says Sitta, who holds a master’s degree in plant production from the University of Rio Verde. “It used to rain every day for weeks, in great volume, and that doesn’t happen anymore.”

This year the rains came very late, impacting the planting of crops. Combined with periods of extreme heat and prolonged drought, this is resulting in a loss of productivity. Sitta estimates that corn production is 30 to 40% lower than normal, bean production is up to 50% lower, and soy has also been affected, but less so.

“We do indeed need to be concerned about climate change and search for solutions,” Sitta concludes.


This story was produced in collaboration with Landscape News to raise awareness of topics relevant to the upcoming Global Landscapes Forum’s Amazonia Digital Conference: The Tipping Point (September 21-23, 2021). Join here.


Banner image: soybean plantation in Central Brazil. Image by Wenderson Araujo/Trilux.

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