Filed by Erika Engelhaupt
This is a vast land, about the size of the continental U.S., and words like verdant and lush can barely describe the way things grow here. The rich growing conditions have shaped a country that is both modern and intensely agricultural at the same time. Today, Brazil faces many choices about how to make the best use of its ecological fortune, and researchers here say that with some foresight, biofuels production can be done without sacrificing the landscape.
Brazil’s diversity is almost overwhelming to a U.S. traveler. For example, on Sunday, we visited the chácara (a small farm used as a getaway) of Fatima Silva, a chemistry professor at the Federal University of São Carlos, and her husband, Leonel. They hosted us for a Sunday barbecue, and their small backyard overflowed with oranges, several kinds of limes, pineapples, bananas, papaya—and chickens as colorful and varied as the fruit.
Large swaths of Brazil’s land are farmed now for soybeans (22 million hectares, where 1 hectare is roughly 2.5 acres) and sugarcane (6.5 million hectares), but the mix of crops has shifted as economic conditions changed over the years since colonial control. Sugarcane was originally planted only in the relatively poor soils of southern Brazil, because the fertile soils of central and northern Brazil were seen as too valuable to waste on a scrappy plant like sugarcane, which grows in fairly nutrient-poor conditions.
The state of São Paulo illustrates this shifting land use. For many years, the major crop here was coffee. In the mid-20th century, coffee started to decline, and by the 1970s, high soy prices had farmers planting soy everywhere they could. But now, soy has been mostly pushed out of São Paulo by sugarcane, today’s most profitable crop. Soy is grown now mainly in central western and northeastern Brazil, and cane is expanding as far as the northeast.
The African palm, which is an imported species along with cane and soy, is making inroads too. It’s planted across the central part of the country for palm oil production. Although palms take several years to start producing seeds, they’re popular because they produce more than 10 times more oil per hectare compared with soy.
Soybeans sprouted across Brazil’s landscape in the 20th century, originally planted in southern Brazil but pushing northward over the years. Large agricultural companies bought land in states such as Pará, in Amazonia, causing some deforestation directly and indirectly by shifting land use in the region.
Brazil’s government has increased the amount of protected land in the Amazon basin, but environmental groups are concerned and are working to protect forests from being eaten away at the edges by soy fields.
There is concern here that growing demand for crops like sugarcane and soy could encourage farmers to clear more land or could cause biofuels to compete with food crops. The scientists on this trip say that’s not necessary. There are still about 100 million hectares of already cleared land that “can be used for agriculture without affecting the food supply,” says Alvaro Macedo da Silva, director of the EMBRAPA (Brazilian department of agriculture) Agricultural Instrumentation unit. Others note that there is great potential in agroforestry, or farming crops with trees, and in the use of native plants that can be grown in mixed use instead of by monoculture and don’t require large amounts of fertilizers and pesticides.
Indirect land use effects, however, are still something to pay attention to, says researcher Tor Fossan, who is working on a project in Brazil to analyze future biofuels scenarios at the International Energy Initiative, an international nonprofit group that advocates sustainable energy approaches. For example, the expansion of biofuels crops could encroach on current cattle pastures and lead to higher concentrations of cattle on some lands. A certification program for sustainable biofuels could help make sure that all impacts are considered, he says.
Brazil’s government is also encouraging research on biodiesel production from plants such as the native Jatropha curcas and others. Miguel Dabdoub, director of the Biodiesel Brasil program and the Laboratory for Development of Clean Technology, is also studying the potential of a native tree called pequi and a common local palm tree called babaçu. The seeds of babaçu are already harvested for their high content of lauric acid, used in cosmetics, and the shells contain an untapped source of energy that could possibly be used in biodiesel.
All of the biofuel producers we’ve met here say they want to be part of an environmentally sustainable energy future for Brazil, and for the world. The rest of the world is watching and hoping to see how it can be done.