How smart farming is helping Brazil feed the world

Cattle on an integrated farm in Deciolandia, in the central Brazilian state of Mato Grosso

Leonardo Sales is a cattle rancher in the arid north of Brazil’s Minas Gerais state. Brazilian farmers like him supply 23% of the world’s cattle, earning $31 billion from the lucrative beef industry. In the past, water scarcity has made it increasingly difficult for many of them to meet growing demand. But now a more sustainable farming method is helping Sales and his fellow ranchers bring overgrazed land back to life.

“I have recovered more than 100 hectares of degraded pasture in less than one year”, Sales told a conference on sustainable development in Brasilia. This is thanks to a farming method known as the Integrated Crop-Livestock-Forest Production System (ICLFS), or ‘Integrated System’. In this system, farmers combine pastures, forests and fields in the same area.

It allows the soil to be used throughout the year, increasing yields while preventing its exhaustion from one single product. It also means that with proper managerial and technical assistance through extension service, farmers can expand their cattle herds without destroying forests.

“Deforestation is absolutely out of the question”, Sales said.

In recent years, the system has been gaining prominence. In Brazil, for instance, its implementation has increased significantly over the past decade, with an addition of nearly 10 million hectares. Research commissioned by Brazil’s Rede de Fomento and carried out by the Kleffmann Group shows that during the 2015/2016 harvest, integrated agricultural production systems covered a total of 11.5 million hectares in Brazil. Forty-five percent of these integrated areas are concentrated in three Brazilian states: Mato Grosso do Sul, Mato Grosso and Rio Grande do Sul.

The main reason cattle ranchers adopted integrated systems was to recover and restore pastures, the research found. Improving yields and lowering their overall financial risk were also important drivers. For crop farmers, on the other hand, increasing profitability and reducing financial risks were the two main reasons for adopting this practice.

The system offers many environmental benefits, including more efficient land use, carbon sequestration, an increase of organic matter in the soil, less erosion, improvement of the microclimate and better animal welfare. Resources such as water, light, nutrients and capital are used more efficiently, too. And the system discourages the cultivation of new areas, thereby protecting native habitats.

In economic terms, the integrated system reduces costs, increases productivity, permits greater diversification and partly reduces economic risks inherent to farming and herding, such as the impact of the weather and volatile markets. Since it requires labour throughout the seasons, it can boost employment. And it can be applied to all farms, regardless of size.

There remain significant obstacles, however, such as the difficulty of commercializing certain products, particularly from forests. The integrated system also requires the use of highly skilled labour, as well as new machinery, which can generate additional costs.

Ultimately, overcoming these obstacles is a challenge that goes far beyond Brazil’s farmers. Between now and 2050, the planet’s population is likely to increase to 9.7 billion, from its current 7.3 billion. Rising incomes around the world will enable more people to afford meat, and this will drive up beef consumption. This is particularly alarming given that cattle farming is considered one of the main contributors to the emission of greenhouse gases. However, well-managed pastures combined with forests could alleviate this problem and, for example, offer a form of carbon sequestration, as trees absorb carbon dioxide.

In Brazil, 160 million hectares of pasture are used for beef cattle, according to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics. Of this total area, 6.2% of it was degraded. Over the last 20 years, Brazilian livestock production has increased by 61%, while pastures have decreased by 11.5%, signalling higher productivity and better land use.

In fact, well-managed permanent pastures have a higher rate of soil carbon accumulation than farms that integrate livestock and crops, and a higher rate than degraded pastures. In fact, they have an even higher rate of accumulation than exclusive cropping systems. This is because the maintenance of good quality pastures allows for a greater accumulation of organic matter and greater retention of carbon in the soil.

Recovering degraded pastures and managing existing pastures better could reduce emissions by 300 tonnes of CO2 equivalent per hectare. This is more than enough to offset emissions from cattle herding. With this in mind, private and public support for transforming Brazil’s cattle farms could bring us closer to achieving our collective climate goals while feeding an ever growing population.