If recent forecasts for extraordinary temperature increases around the globe prove to be accurate, the Brazilian economy runs the risk of collapsing, according to some experts. The most widely discussed symptom of this potential crisis in agriculture is that grain production could drop in half during the next century as the climate becomes warmer. That would be accompanied by a reduction in the area that can be used for cultivating the country’s most important agricultural products.
This situation makes climate change a subject of urgent concern in the Brazilian government. According to the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCCC), affiliated with the United Nations, there is “unequivocal” evidence that human beings are responsible for creating global warming. The IPCC confirms that the past six years have been the warmest in history, and that the current concentration of gases in the atmosphere is at its highest level in 650 years.
Whether human beings or natural factors are responsible, Brazil has undergone some significant climatic changes in recent years. In 2005, a drought in Amazonia, the Amazon region, led the region to suffer its lowest volume of rainfall in almost a half century. In a country generally free of climatic anomalies, Hurricane Katrina seriously damaged agricultural producers and left hundreds of families defenseless in the south of the country in 2004. And the highest temperature recorded in Brazilian history was registered in 2005 in Bom Jesús in the state of Piauí in northern Brazil where thermometers registered 44.6 degrees Celsius [almost 113 degrees Fahrenheit].
These changes in the climate have already had a negative impact on Brazil’s economy. One example is the effect on soy production. Production of the crop dropped by more than 10% last year compared with 2005 because the climate was so dry. But the effects of this decline go further than direct damage to the country’s finances. “Soy is important for various food chains of domestic animals in Brazil. The grain acts as a base for foods eaten by birds and pigs. In addition, it represents an alternative to traditional fuel because it is a raw material for manufacturing a type of bio-diesel,” says Daniel Bacchi, an economist at CEPEA/ESALQ, the Center for Advanced Applied Economic Studies at the Luis de Queiroz College of Agriculture in the State of Sấo Paulo.
Bacchi explains that both internal demand and export volumes of this product have been damaged by the decline in productivity, which has led to higher prices. “The direct consequences of the drop in soy production will show up not only in internal consumption but also in the trade balance,” he says. The decline in agricultural profits, which are responsible for 25% of Brazil’s GDP, could one day lead to a decline of as much as 10% of the country’s total output.
Some Brazilian researchers are trying to evaluate in detail the damage that the agricultural sector will suffer if temperatures continue to rise. To achieve that goal, CEPAGRI/UNICAMP, the center for research into the impact of climate change on agriculture at the State University of Campinas, has completed a study that analyzes various regions of the country in terms of climatic risk to five main crops: coffee, rice, beans, corn and soy. “Using this analysis, we know exactly what, when and where we can plant without producing any damage to the climate,” says Milton Silveira Pinto, associate director and research coordinator of CEPAGRI.
Researchers at UNICAMP and EMBRAPA (The Brazilian Agricultural and Fishing Research Company) have evaluated those regions that would be most suitable for planting various crops if temperatures were to increase by 1.4 degrees Celsius; or 3 degrees; or 5.8 degrees. “This is a biological problem,” says Silveira Pinto. “Plants stop the photosynthesis process when temperatures are above 40 degrees Celsius [104 degrees Fahrenheit]. For example, coffee is more sensitive to heat, and it cannot be grown in areas where the temperature exceeds 36 degrees Celsius. What we do is to study in which areas global warming would mean that temperatures exceed the limits of each one of these products, leading to a decline in production,” he adds.
In the worst case scenario, the study shows that the principal grain crops grown in Brazil could decline by 50% over the next century. Coffee, a sector responsible for five percent of Brazil’s agricultural business, would suffer the most damage, a 90% decline in production. According to Silveira Pinto, that product would no longer exist forever in traditional areas of cultivation in western Sấo Paulo State, the country’s most productive area. It would be produced only in Paraná and Río Grande del Sur, two southern regions that have more pleasant temperatures. “Even if there is only an increase of one degree Celsius, the damage produced by the decline in coffee production would reach $600 million. Some people say that that this most optimistic view is irreversible and that it will happen in the short term; that is, in 10 to 15 years,” says Silveira Pino. “Soy beans, a product where exports added up to $8.8 billion between January and November 2006, would be the product that suffers the second greatest damage because of global warming. The reduction in its crop will vary from between 10% and 64%,” he adds.
For his part, Jurandir Zullo, director of CEPAGRI, is certain that “if the forecasts of the IPCC turn out to be true, not one of our main crops will benefit. That’s why it is important for us to be prepared.” Zullo notes that the study of global warming takes two situations into account. “The first line [of thought] evaluates if climate changes are really happening. The second considers what is going to happen with Brazilian agriculture if there are changes, and what impact that will have on efforts to stay profitable.”
The first studies to divide up the climate zones of Brazil date back to the middle of the 1990s. Beginning in 1996, they became part of public policy. Analysis of the zones becomes a prerequisite for the rural financing and security programs of the Ministry of Agriculture. When global climate change became more obvious, beginning in 1999, the second stage in the process kicked in, confirming the transformations and their impact on agricultural activity. “We were analyzing the changes from the viewpoint of rainfall measurements but we did not make any great discoveries,” says Eduardo Assad, research coordinator and director of EMBRAPA Informatica, [which studies the agricultural and fishing sectors]. “Maybe that is because rain is a random climatic phenomenon, and it is accurately measured. In 2000, we changed our focus and moved into observing temperature changes that were becoming more and more obvious. People are still not aware that these changes are occurring and that the only way to prepare [for them] is to invest in public policies and research. With this project, we manage to forecast and propose solutions that will reduce the probable loss of 70% of Brazil’s agricultural area,” he said.
Genetics and Crop Substitution
Researchers at EMBRAPA are betting on genetic improvements and crop substitution to adapt Brazilian agriculture to the new climatic scenarios. “In the first place, we have to discover how to continue to plant,” says Assad. He explains that studies about adaptability can help to develop species that are more resistant to heat. In the second place, “We have to invest in finding species that can augment the cleanliness of the atmosphere, which is the raw material for the production of bio-energy.”
Brazil, a world leader in bio-fuels used in the transportation sector, may be able to benefit from the decision of the European Union to use bio-fuels for 10% of its automobile fleet by 2020. However, Zullo explains, in the process of substituting for plants you have to consider both the material and human infrastructure of production. “You cannot say that it would be better to change wheat for cane sugar because this is a totally interdisciplinary question. There is a social commitment to the people who produce it. Farmers want to work with coffee, and it is not because the South of this country is the only region in Brazil that it is suitable for planting coffee,” says Zullo. “Our obligation is to show alternatives. Starting from there, decision makers must analyze which of these choices is best for the country,” he concludes.
Luci Nunes, a geographer at UNICAMP’s geoscience institute (IGE), is sure that in a future marked by climate change, people will have to take a fresh look at investments in agricultural crops. “For example, when they export tropical fruits, Brazil is exporting an enormous quantity of water necessary for this activity. Millions of liters of free water are exported because of a lack of knowledge and planning.” Nunes believes that in order to predict the economic impact of global warming, you need to put it into the context of such factors as abuse of agricultural space, neglect of biodiversity and natural resources, and the lack of investment in urban planning. “We cannot take a simplistic view of the facts. Nowadays, our country plants soy to substitute for natural vegetation in the central region where the main water basins are located, so that we can export soy. The value of these resources needs to be re-assessed in the future. To do this, we need more scientific knowledge and a higher level of popular participation that places environmental topics on the political agenda of the country.”
Researchers also worry about biodiversity, an important national resource. CPTEC/INPEC, the center for forecasting weather and climate change at the Institute for Space Research, is studying the regional impact of the global climatic scenarios forecast by the IPCC. Its final results will be presented at the end of February. The study considers two different scenarios about two different Brazilian ecosystems, Amazonia the Amazon region and the Pantanal, a region noted for its wetlands, through the year 2100. “We verified that, over the next 100 years, the Amazon rain forest could face a temperature increase of eight degrees Celsius and a 20% reduction in the normal volume of rainfall. The system could collapse, which would mean that Amazonia stops absorbing carbon gasses from the atmosphere and acquires the sort of vegetation more like semi-arid soil,” says José Antonio Marengo, a meteorologist who is the director of the CPTEC.
The costs of global warming for the states of the Amazon region will be the focus of the INPE study in 2007. Scientists intend to assess the damage that has resulted from the transformation of the biodiversity and from changes in the climate of the rain forest. CEPAGRI in Campinas has already been working on this. Among the consequences of global warming not yet quantified, Marengo cites the migration of the population that depends on mining in Amazonia into the big cities of Brazil’s North and Northeast. This process has meant over-population and economic exhaustion in these areas. “People seem to think one green crop substitutes for another green crop but it does not work that way. The forest is not going to stop existing but that is not the problem. The vegetation we have now is no longer going to exist, and this will have serious economic and social consequences for the country,” says Marengo.
The study by INPE cost about 800,000 reais. It was financed by the Biodiversity Program of the Ministry of Environment and by the Global Opportunity Fund. Marengo says that research into climate changes has yet to have the impact it should have on the Brazilian government, not even as a result of the growing attention paid to the topic in the mass media or to pressure exerted by non-governmental organizations on political leadership. “Local governments still don’t realize that climate change is a scientific fact. It is essential to accept that Brazil is vulnerable to global warming if we are going to take action and adapt to this reality,” Marengo says.