One Change Could Cut Brazil's Carbon Emissions in Half

Nov 16, 2009

Brazil is the fourth-largest greenhouse gas emitter in the world, responsible for about 5 percent of current global GHG emissions.

Maybe this isn't shocking. It's a huge country. Its south is speckled with major population centers, and it has a southern industrial belt. Yet most of its emissions don't come from its cities or its factories. At least not directly. They come from its land.

Brazil is well aware of this and has just offered to voluntary reduce emissions by between 38 and 42 percent as a "political gesture" to breaking the climate negotiations deadlock. The targets won't be binding, but they project 50 percent to come from a reduction in deforestation.

"We still believe that the responsibility belongs to the developed countries," said Dilma Rousseff, chief of staff to President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

Agriculture and land-use changes, chiefly deforestation, amount to roughly 77 percent of Brazil's total emissions. Deforestation alone accounts for 75 percent of the country's total carbon emissions. And agriculture, including animal husbandry, and deforestation aren't really separable.

Deforestation occurs because ranchers or settlers cut down trees so that they can plant crops or pasture animals on newly-cleared land. Crops and cows are profitable. Trees aren't. One logical solution is to create incentives to keep forests as forests. The REDD plan, enormously flawed, is one such proposal.

But there's another side to the equation: how to maintain Brazilian agricultural production, or even expand it, in the face of the goal of reducing emissions from deforestation and agriculture. Currently Brazil has the world's largest agro-food export surplus, over $27.5 billion, so a great deal of its food does not go towards domestic consumption — forest destruction turns directly into agro-exports.

This is not only unfortunate, but unnecessary, because Brazil could radically increase its exports, and its agricultural productivity, without chopping down a single tree. In one fell swoop, it could increase per-hectare food production, lift great sectors of its population out of poverty, and radically reduce carbon emissions.

How? By creating small farms.

That's the unavoidable conclusion buried in the latest agricultural census. Small-scale family agriculture, covering just 24.3 percent of the country's total agricultural land, produces vast amount of the country's staple foods: 87 percent of its manioc, 58 percent of its milk, 50 percent of its poultry, 38 percent of its coffee, 46 percent of its corn. And that's with just 13 percent of the subsidies given to Brazilian industrial agriculture — $7.5 billion versus $58 billion dollars.

This is not just a statistical oddity. A plethora of research, going back nearly 60 years, shows that farm productivity is in inverse-correlation to a farm's size. The smaller the farm, the more productive per hectare. As development expert Peter Rosset comments,

"Small-farm agriculture provides a productive, efficient and ecological vision for the future."

A back-of-the-envelope estimate suggests that if all of Brazil's current agricultural land were converted to small farms, it would be able to reduce deforestation rates to zero, cutting its carbon emissions in half, and produce far more food than it currently does — at least if it stopped cutting down forests in order to plant soy and raise cattle.

The conversion from large-scale industrial to small-scale organic agriculture would itself massively reduce Brazil's carbon emissions. A 2003 study analyzing the effects of an organic transition in the United States showed that the conversion of 10,000 small or medium-sized farms from input-intensive to organic agricultural production would store a massive amount of carbon in the soil: equivalent to taking almost 1.2 million cars off the road.

That's not accounting for the carbon emissions resulting from petro-chemical or mechanical inputs. Such numbers are more difficult to quantify, but estimates have suggested that greenhouse-gas emissions from farming could decrease by at least 20 percent if inputs were radically decreased. Again, such numbers come from U.S.-based studies, but the system of Brazilian industrial farming differs little from the system prevalent in the United States, at least in that respect.

A 2007 study in the Journal of Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems suggested that under realistic assumptions, a wholesale conversion to organic agriculture, not even taking account of a change in land distribution, could increase total world agricultural production by as much as 50 percent.

"Organic agriculture has the potential to contribute quite substantially to the global food supply, while reducing the detrimental environmental impacts of conventional agriculture," the study's authors write.

The analysis didn't lay out the results of such a change on emissions, but they would obviously also go down in such a scenario.

Resolving the world's food crisis and helping to resolve its climate crisis while producing healthier food is a good idea for everyone — except the people who own the huge tracts of land that benefit from the current system. Is it any wonder that statistics like the Brazilian agricultural census (and similar numbers apply to the rest of underdeveloped world) are barely reported in the U.S. press? Or in the case of Brazil, in the Brazilian press?

 

See also:

Want to Save the Amazon? Try Looking Closer to Home

Beef: The Prime Cause of Deforestation in the Amazon

Ignoring Climate Change Carries a High Price Tag

Organic Farming Yields Far Better Crop Resistance and Resilience

Climate Change Could Devastate Latin America's Agriculture

Why Is the Media Afraid to Tackle Livestock's Role in Climate Change?

 

(Photo: Daniel Beltra/Greenpeace)

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