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Brazil could protect its rainforest while expanding agriculture

Many developing countries currently face challenges that pit economic growth against environmental protection. As they expand their agricultural production, they often convert forests into croplands and pastures, thus weakening the world’s ability to prevent future climate deterioration and biodiversity loss. 

For instance, Brazil’s rainforest – the largest in the world, with an area of more than 1.2 million square miles – has been severely decimated over the past decades in order to increase agricultural production (particularly soybean, Brazil being the world’s largest exporter of this legume). However, according to a new longitudinal study led by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Brazil could in fact strengthen its agricultural sector while protecting the rainforest. 

“In the current context of high grain prices and food supply disruptions, we believe there is a critical need for major crop-producing countries to reassess their potential to produce more on existing cropland,” the study authors explained.  

“Without an emphasis on intensifying crop production within the existing agricultural area, coupled with strong institutions and policies that prevent deforestation in frontier agricultural areas, it would be difficult to protect the last bastions of forests and biodiversity on the planet while being sensitive to the economic aspirations of countries to develop.”

According to the researchers, with a carefully managed strategy to intensify production on existing acres, Brazil could increase its annual soybean output by 36 percent by 2035, while reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 58 percent. The scientists described a three-pronged “intensification strategy” which involves 1) significantly increasing soybean crop yields, 2) growing a second crop of corn on soybean fields in several areas, and 3) raising more cattle on smaller pastures in order to free up more land for soybean cultivation.

This strategy could “eliminate deforestation completely and essentially reduce the amount of carbon dioxide equivalents released into the atmosphere, helping to mitigate climate change,” as study senior author Patricio Grassini – an associate professor of Agriculture and Horticulture at Nebraska – put it. “This approach strengthens agriculture while protecting fragile ecosystems that are important from a perspective of climate change mitigation, as well as biodiversity conservation.”

However, achieving the dual goal of agricultural expansion and rainforest conservation will require strong institutions, as well as proper policy and enforcement to make sure that productivity gains effectively translate into forest preservation.

“By showing that it is possible to produce more on existing agricultural land, this research study is bringing real solutions to the table and can have a massive impact to help Brazil produce more while protecting the environment,” the authors concluded.

The study is published in the journal Nature Sustainability. 

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By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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