OHEN MARIZE PORTO’S her husband died suddenly in 2002, she was left with three young children and a failing cattle ranch she didn’t know how to run. Desperate, she turned to Embrapa, the Brazilian government’s agricultural research institute, for help. Today, his farm in the state of Goiás is a model of technical know-how and productivity. The corn grows high in the dry, red earth, planted on last season’s soybean leftovers. Once the corn is harvested, the cattle come to graze.
The practice Ms. Porto uses – which combines livestock, crops and forestry – requires less land and can make a farm five times more productive than the average Brazilian operation. It restores degraded pastures, making it ideal for use in cerrado, the heavy savannah that covers a quarter of the country. However, it took time to establish itself. Despite its advantages, the system has only been adopted on 18.5 million hectares, or about 5% of agricultural land.
It’s worrying. Over the past four decades, Brazil has transformed itself from a net importer into the world’s fourth largest exporter of food products. In 2022, it is expected to produce 285 million tonnes of grain, six times the amount harvested in 1977. Yet the world is thirsty for more. Strained supply chains and shortages caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have added pressure on food markets. Even before the war, Brazil exported more wheat in the first two months of this year than in the whole of 2021. But extreme weather conditions and soaring fuel and fertilizer prices are preventing farmers from meeting the demand. request.
No rain, no grain
South America’s breadbasket also relies on precarious ecosystems. Cattle and soy farms are destroying parts of the Amazon. The progress of tropical agriculture has also been made to the detriment of half of the cerrado‘s trees. the cerrado, known as the “Cradle of Waters”, feeds eight of Brazil’s 12 main river basins. But it depends on the air humidity of the rainforest for its water supply. Thus, deforestation does not only aggravate climate change. It also compromises the requirements for growing food.
Meeting these challenges requires innovation. In an April 22 executive order, President Joe Biden said the United States would try to reduce the import of food produced on illegally deforested lands, such as the Amazon. In surveys, around half of consumers in rich and middle-income countries say they consider sustainability when buying food and drink. But can Brazilian agriculture meet this demand by becoming greener, while increasing the food supply?
Jair Bolsonaro, the populist president, has overseen rapidly rising levels of deforestation and weakened laws protecting native vegetation. Yet, on paper at least, his government’s plan for agriculture is ambitious. It aims to reduce emissions in the sector by the equivalent of 1.1 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide by 2030. Part of the plan involves developing standards for what constitutes “low-carbon” , “carbon neutral” or “carbon negative” for ten goods. In 2017, Brazil became the first country in the world to create a “carbon neutral” or net zero emissions label for beef.
Beef production alone accounts for around 8.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Brazil, as the world’s largest exporter of beef, has strong incentives to label its products “carbon neutral”. Not everyone is convinced. Such claims of neutrality are largely based on measuring carbon sequestration: that the grass on which livestock graze, or the forests in which they sleep, can act as a sink for carbon dioxide. But such calculations do not take into account the opportunity cost of carbon, or what the land could have captured if it had been used for other purposes. Biogas captures waste emissions, but not methane from cow burps. Carbon-neutral beef “seems like an oxymoron to me,” says Matthew Hayek of New York University.
Despite everything, the quest for carbon neutrality is driving changes in the sector. Carapreta, a meat company, has three farms in Minas Gerais, in southeastern Brazil. In one of them, the tilapias are raised in tanks and the water in which they swim is used for the cereals of the farm. The grain becomes animal feed for the 70,000 cattle that the farm slaughters each year. Meat scraps are turned into fish feed, while animal waste is turned into fertilizer and biogas. This gas helps to make the farm self-sufficient in renewable energy. All of this, the company says, will eventually make the farm carbon negative. By 2024, the owners of Carapreta expect to have invested 1 billion reais ($208 million) in the company.
However, even with such large resources, Carapreta still struggles to make its agriculture entirely environmentally friendly. In a country almost the size of the United States, but with shoddy infrastructure, some of its cattle are moved in trucks thousands of miles from other states. The company buys cattle feed from Cargill, an American feed giant. Organic fertilizer is difficult to produce: 70% of Carapreta’s inputs are chemical.
Bread basket breaking point
And the Carapreta team is keen to encourage more meat consumption, not less. “It’s something you can eat every day, it’s good for you and for the environment as a whole,” says Gabriel Geo, the marketing director. But out of the hectare it takes to graze one Carapreta cow, an average Brazilian farm could produce 28 tons of potatoes or five tons of corn.
Most Brazilian farmers don’t have millions to invest in satisfying conscientious consumers. This includes small and medium-sized farms, which produced around two-thirds of food by value in 2006, the latest year for which data are available. Only 15% of Brazilian farms report having access to credit, according to a World Bank study. It’s also more difficult for farms to switch to different commodities, such as wheat, says Lygia Pimentel of Agrifatto, a consultancy.
Brazil also imports 85% of its fertilizers. Almost half of that amount came from Russia and Belarus last year. In March, the agriculture minister said the country only had enough fertilizer to last until October, raising the possibility of a crisis when the planting season begins in September. Its farmers already feed more than 800 million people, and at a lower cost than other major producers. But filling all the bowls Vladimir Putin has emptied is too big a task for Brazil alone. ■
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This article appeared in the The Americas section of the print edition under the headline “Pulling its wheat”