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Growing agricultural productivity in Brazil: Efficiency, innovation and sustainability

50 years ago, my country relied on food imports to feed itself. Today we feed 10% of the world’s population. 

Let me tell you about the agronomic science and innovation which has made this possible.

A critical step in this journey came in 1973, with the creation of Embrapa. This national agri-food research agency had a clear mission: to promote agronomic science in Brazil, and help our farmers use the latest innovations to thrive in Brazil’s tropical climate. 

WORKING IN HARMONY WITH NATURE

In those early days, Embrapa´s researchers were focused on using agri-science to ramp up food production. Fortunately, they were extraordinarily successful. Between 1980 and 2020, Brazil more than quadrupled its grain production. But perhaps the most surprising aspect was that – in the process – the science led us in an unexpected direction – towards even higher sustainability.

In those forty years, as Brazil’s grain production grew 406%, the area farmed grew by only 64%. Researchers unlocked the potential of crop rotation, soil fertilization and adaptation to tropical conditions – discovering natural synergies which make the land more productive whereas protecting it from degradation.

Over time, Embrapa’s focus moved from simply maximising production, to increasing production in a sustainable way, by protecting ecosystems and harnessing the power of nature. Over time Embrapa’s research moved us away from an agricultural model of man dominating nature and toward one where farmers grow in harmony with nature.

REDUCING FERTILISER USE

For instance, it is well known that crops need nitrogen (N) to grow. In many countries, the chief source of this N is chemical fertilisers. Unfortunately, excessive use of these fertilisers has been linked to groundwater pollution and to the emission of greenhouse gases (GHG) into the atmosphere, including CO2 released in the process of synthesis and transportation, and the potent nitrous oxide.

However, there is a safer, cheaper and more natural alternative, which substantially reduces the need for chemical fertilisers represented by the biological nitrogen fixation (BNF) process. Specific microorganisms can convert the atmospheric nitrogen (N2) into a form that the crops can absorb. The most significant contribution to agriculture occurs with the bacteria, collectively known as “rhizobia”, in symbiotic association with some legume plants.

The first experiments of BNF in Brazil started in the 1920s with soybean, but intensification occurred when the crop started to expand, in the late 1950s. For the soybean, bacteria selection and breeding programs were very successful in identifying elite strains, able to provide all N required by plants to reach high yields. Today, Brazil is known for achieving the highest contribution of BNF with the soybean crop.  Embrapa has also contributed to the selection of elite strains for other legume crops, including important grain crops such as the cowpea, common bean and pea, in addition to pastures and trees. 

Currently, Embrapa is developing new studies on bacteria able to fix N2 on sugarcane, maize, wheat and rice crops. 

With support from Embrapa – and in line with Brazil’s climate commitments –, a target was set to promote BNF, and apply it in over 5.5 million hectares of farmland by 2020. That target was not only met, but was dramatically exceeded, two years ahead of schedule. By 2018 BNF was being used in over 10.6 million hectares of farmland: 193% of the original target. 

According to estimates, supplying soybeans with N via BNF, rather than using N fertilizers prevented the emission of 200 Megatons of CO2 equivalent, in just one harvest, in addition to an annual saving estimated at $8 billion.

Today, as the world faces a shortage of fertiliser – and as the potentially harmful effects of excessive fertiliser use become more evident – it is more important than ever for farmers across Brazil – and beyond – to embrace the benefits of BNF.

Today, 80% of the soybean area in Brazil is inoculated to provide N to the crop. This represents around 30 million ha. 

In line with national climate commitments, our aim is to expand this technology, the BNF, on 13 million hectares of farmland by 2030.   This expansion will be not only on soybean, but also on other leguminous crops, such as edible beans, mainly and in crops, such those planted under the Crop-Livestock-Forest systems. Farmers in over 17 million hectares have adopted this system.  

REDUCING SOIL EROSION

Traditional tillage farming – where a tractor ploughs an entire field before sowing crops – has become the norm in many countries, viewed as the easiest means of planting and growing food. In Brazil, the greatest contribution of NT is related to less soil erosion compared to ploughed systems. Soil erosion is by far the largest problem of soil degradation leading to food insecurity and poverty in tropical and sub-tropical regions.

However, Embrapa has helped to identify the numerous benefits of ‘No Till Farming’. By planting seeds directly into the untilled ground (much as the ancient Incas and Egyptians did) Brazilian farmers use less fuel, while preserving moisture and organic matter in the soil. This is a more productive way to use the soil which, over time, leads to a significant reduction in soil erosion. 

Brazil is one of the world leaders in soil and water conservation due to the widespread use of no-tillage (NT) for annual crops such as soybean, maize, wheat, cotton and common beans. The practice of NT was first introduced in the 1970s by pioneer farmers covering 33 million hectares today.

Between 3.3 and 5.0 million hectares of the area under NT shows permanent soil cover, crop rotation with cover crops and green manure. Rates of annual C sequestration may reach 0,4 t C/ha. Studies developed in Embrapa have shown that the decomposition of NT nitrogen-rich residues does not lead to higher N2O emissions than ploughed systems

We aimed to increase about  8 million hectares more, farmed in this way by 2020. But again this target was exceeded early. By 2018, we had already reached 159% of our goal, helping to reduce Brazil’s carbon emissions by approximately 30.63 million tons. 

We are now broadening the implementation of ‘No Till Farming’ system to include vegetables and expanding the surface of 12.5 million hectares of farmland by 2030. 

According to a study published by the Institute for Research in Applied Economics, the implementation of these techniques, together with the planting of forests and the recovery of pastures, between 2010 and 2020 alone, led to the mitigation of about 152.93 million tons of CO2 equivalent. This means Brazil reached 113% of the carbon reduction target it signed up to at COP15. 

At the same time, according to a recent study, Brazil’s grains and oilseeds now feed approximately 10% of the world’s population.

A MORE SUSTAINABLE FUTURE

But we know from our scientists that we still have more to achieve. We recognise the importance of striving for a more sustainable food system to play our part in tackling global climate change. 

We have now set another ambitious goal: to cut 1.1 billion tons of CO2 emissions from Brazilian agribusiness by 2030. This figure is seven times higher than the one we set for 2020. 

To achieve this, Brazil is continuing to promote and embrace new technologies in sustainable agri-food. This includes the “intensive grazing termination” method – where feed is provided to animals in the drought period – allowing Brazilian farmers to fatten cattle more quickly before slaughter, thus reducing livestock CO2 emissions. By applying this method to 5 million cattle, we can mitigate an estimated 1,042 million Mg of CO2 equivalent. We will also increase the amount of treated animal waste by 208.40 million m3.

Overall, Brazil aims to apply sustainable technologies to a total of 72.60 million hectares of farmland – an area more than twice the size of the UK. 

As we move forward, we must continue to support the increased adoption of sustainable practices in Brazil and beyond: identifying further innovations and closely monitoring our progress toward a lower carbon future.

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