Science

Intensive farming of cleared land could save rest of Amazon rainforest

Brazil has cleared large parts of the Amazon rainforest for use as farmland, encouraging economic growth but causing environmental harm. Now researchers suggest that making intense use of already cleared land could avoid the need to fell any more trees



Environment



10 October 2022

A soy plantation in the Amazon in Belterra, Brazil

Ricardo Beliel/Brazil Photos/LightRocket via Getty Images

Encouraging more intensive farming in areas of the Brazilian Amazon rainforest that have already been felled could help preserve the rest of the rainforest, by boosting crop yields without serious environmental impacts, researchers have found.

For decades Brazilian farmers have been logging large tracts of the Amazon, a practice that drives the country’s economic growth but has catastrophic environmental consequences. Deciding the future use of the rainforest is a key part of Brazil’s current general election, which will see a second round of voting on 30 October.

Patricio Grassini at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and his colleagues say that instead of logging more areas of virgin forest to create new farmland, Brazilian farmers should stock more cattle on ranches and use fertilisers, irrigation systems and better soil management to boost production of soybeans in existing fields.

The team simulated a range of intensification scenarios and found that if farmers followed this approach it could allow Brazil to increase its soybean production – its largest national export – by 36 per cent by 2035 without any further deforestation. The environmental impact of such intensification would be “negligible” compared to that of further deforestation, says Grassini.

If Brazil fails to take action to stem the deforestation rate, 5.7 million hectares of virgin forest and savannah could be cleared for soybean production over the next 15 years, the team found.

“Without an emphasis on intensifying crop production within the existing agricultural area… it would be difficult to protect the last bastions of forests and biodiversity on the planet while being sensitive to the economic aspirations of countries to develop,” says Grassini.

However, he says that “strong institutions and policies that prevent deforestation” would also be needed to prevent illegal logging in farming areas that back onto virgin rainforest.

Rates of deforestation in the Amazon have jumped 75 per cent since 2019, after president Jair Bolsonaro took office and pushed to open the region up to economic development. Not all deforestation is due to land clearance for farming – mining is also a driver – but it accounts for the majority of trees felled. Bolsonaro’s rival to be the next president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, has promised to reverse environmental damage.

Journal reference: Nature Sustainability, DOI: 10.1038/s41893-022-00968-8

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