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It Is Time for Brazil’s Second Green Revolution

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In this guest post, David Roquetti, Executive Director of Brazil’s national fertilizer association (ANDA in Portuguese), reviews the innovations that can transform agriculture in the Latin America powerhouse once again.

Leia a matéria em português: Chegou a Hora Para a Segunda Revolução Verde no Brasil

For so long, Brazil has been the “country of the future” but in at least one area, we have already made this dream come true. Over the last 40 years, Brazil has led a Green Revolution throughout Latin America, transforming tropical agriculture and enjoying the full benefits of our unparalleled natural resources.

From once being a net importer, our country is now the world’s largest producer and exporter of sugar, coffee and orange juice, and the second largest producer of beef, broiler chicken and soybean.

Besides a major producer of food, fibres and energy, Brazil is also a leading power in environmental preservation with around two thirds of its territory with native vegetation preserved or protected.

So, with 13.5 per cent of the world’s arable land and 15.2 per cent of the world’s renewable water resources, Brazil has shown how to maximise its potential for productivity.

Brazil is the world's largest coffee producer (Picture: Donna Bowater)

Brazil is the world’s largest coffee producer (Picture: Donna Bowater)

One of the keys to this success has been a greater understanding of soil fertility, particularly in the cerrado, a region previously considered too deficient for intensive farming.

In the last 40 years, fertilizer consumption across Brazil has increased by almost 180 per cent, producing almost 165 per cent higher yields. At the same time, however, land use has increased by less than 40 per cent. This is due to the fact that innovations such as improved fertilizers and other inputs have saved a total of almost 130 million hectares from conversion to agriculture between 1976 and 2016, while contributing to greater harvests on existing farmland.

But while we have demonstrated we can maximize Brazil’s potential for productivity – even in the most challenging climates – it is time to ensure these increasingly high yields are fully sustainable. If we are to guarantee our long-term food security and the survival of our precious natural resources, we need a second Green Revolution. This means we need to find increasingly innovative ways to maintain our high output without unnecessarily compromising our natural resources.

Fortunately, our leading researchers are already contributing to this, making Brazilian agriculture ever more sustainable. One such example is the expansion of the integrated agriculture-livestock systems or crop-livestock-forestry systems, which covers 11.5 million hectares across the country.

These integrated and complementary systems harness the regenerative potential of agriculture: livestock contributes fertilizer and increases the capture of carbon in the soils while crop residues can provide animal feed. This helps meet our growing demand for meat sustainably.

In another example, Heitor Cantarella, winner of this year’s IFA Norman Borlaug Prize, has shown how it is possible to reduce emissions associated with sugarcane production – one of our most important crops – by up to 95 per cent in his work at the Agronomic Institute of Campinas (IAC).

Heitor Cantarella was the 2017 winner of IFA's Borlaug Award

Heitor Cantarella was the 2017 winner of IFA’s Borlaug Prize

Dr. Cantarella showed how applying certain compounds to fertilizer used on sugarcane slows the conversion of ammonia to nitrate, making ethanol production more environmentally friendly as a result – a critical intervention as Brazil’s biofuel industry grows.

A similar technique for phosphorus fertilizer has been developed by Dr Cantarella’s colleagues at the IAC, which has been shown to result in 25 per cent higher yields of sugarcane.

Meanwhile, long-term research into improving soil fertility in the Brazilian cerrado – including work on fertilizer use efficiency to increase crop productivity – has already helped to improve global food security while diminishing deforestation.

A key innovation, championed by Alfredo Scheid Lopes – another Brazilian winner of the IFA Norman Borlaug Award – was liming these typically high-acid soils to help improve yields of non-acid tolerant crops. This has been an important contribution to improving yields while also avoiding the over-exploitation of marginal land.

These are positive examples but if we are to secure our place in the future, we must be constantly improving, producing more by using less. Brazil is now an agribusiness powerhouse, but the gains will be short-term unless we continue focusing on making Brazilian agriculture sustainable.

The second Green Revolution needs more heroes like Dr Cantarella to take on the challenge to feed Brazil, its land and the world today, tomorrow and well into the future.