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The Next Step Towards Climate Change Mitigation: Improving Productivity of Brazil’s Agricultural Lands

Published: May, 2017

History reveals that modernization of agriculture is compatible with protection of forests in the country

On November 4, 2016, after decades of global negotiation and planning, the historic Paris Climate Change Agreement entered into effect. This unprecedented, international effort galvanizes 191 nations, including Brazil, who signed the accord to cut carbon emissions within ten years. Already, Brazil has deepened its commitment by ratifying the agreement at the national level. Now, as each country faces the challenge of meeting their reduction goals, Brazil needs to employ strategies to comply with its obligations and meet its targets.

Given its abundant biodiversity and the sweeping scale of the Amazon rainforest, Brazil plays a critical role as steward to vast natural resources. The nation’s success in slowing deforestation and emissions in the last decade through stronger enforcement and the passage of the 2012 Forest Code bode well for its ability to meet its conservation demands. However, the recent increase in deforestation shows that this challenge remains.

As a leading world agricultural producer, Brazil has benefited greatly from its plentiful and verdant land. However, INPUT researchers at Climate Policy Initiative (CPI)/ PUC-Rio show that the nation does not use its cleared lands to their fullest potential. This creates an opportunity for agriculture to expand without compromising environmental protection. Much of Brazil’s agricultural output centers in relatively small proportion of land – 18% of the country’s farmland accounted for 63% of its overall production in 2006. A substantial part of cleared land is underused, mainly for cattle grazing, which is one of agriculture’s least productive activities.

This inefficient use of agricultural and cleared lands has created a situation in which Brazil does not necessarily face a trade-off between increasing agricultural production and deforestation. By transitioning these lands to crop production and improving cattle grazing efficiency on existing lands, Brazil can accelerate its growth without making an additional environmental compromise. Since the 1970s, the nation has experienced a transition from land intensive farming practices to those which are more technologically efficient. This transition has helped slow deforestation by allowing producers to do more on their existing land.

This brief outlines the new evidence from CPI/ PUC-Rio research that shows major transformations in agriculture have promoted yield gains, without increasing new forest clearings. The studies provide four examples in which this is the case — the soybean revolution in the Cerrado, the expansion of electricity in rural areas, a recent surge of sugarcane, and a change in the relative crop-to-beef prices.

The studies depict encouraging signs that profound gains in agricultural production that do not compromise environmental protection are within the nation’s reach. In fact, in all four areas where productivity increased, deforestation fell. Thus, through continued innovation and improvement of policies, Brazil can continue to simultaneously strengthen its economy and environment.