Brazil farming revolution may slow Amazon demise

Reuters News
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Posted: Sep 23, 2011 9:03 AM
Brazil farming revolution may slow Amazon demise

By Reese Ewing

REDENCAO, Brazil (Reuters) - Cassio Carvalho do Val is about to invest nearly $2 million to add 10,000 cattle to his ranch on the edge of the Amazon.

But instead of burning down forest for his growing herd to graze freely he will break with tradition, reducing his pastureland and adding grain to their diet.

Val is one of a growing number of farmers betting on so-called integrated farming by diversifying production and revenue. His move epitomizes a quiet and fragile revolution that marks a departure from Brazil's slash-and-burn past.

It is a trend that may also help ease the felling of the world's largest rain forest.

Soy growers are rotating fields with more corn and cotton, planting forest and raising cattle. Ranchers are planting corn to supplement their herd's traditional diet of grasses.

This tends toward greater and more efficient output while easing pressure for expanding area, and bodes well for the consumers struggling worldwide with higher food prices, as well as conservationists who see Brazil as a crucial battlefield.

Such investments in yield are not new in the United States or Europe. They are, however, in the tropical grain and cattle belt of Brazil, which means there are risks and uncertainties.

"I lose 80 calves a year to jaguars," Val said from a dark hardwood paneled farm house in southern Para state, where any movement more complex than breathing triggers perspiration.

Val, a Sao Paulo University-educated sociologist, is one of a growing number of farmers taking a more scientific view of production. He has hired consultants to help acquire a whole new set of skills in grain farming.

Yet, he still embodies many of the older ruralist sentiments that thrived here in an era defined by man-versus-nature. The jungle and the bush were the enemy.

Brazil, with its chronic social inequalities, relied on homesteading until the last decade to populate and secure its vast, United States-sized

interior.

Val's father packed 40 days by burro to the area that is now Redencao in 1959 -- aging black-and-white photographs of that trek don the walls of his son's farm house. The shoot-from-the-hip, pioneering spirit is still revered here.

He secured government financing to clear 220 square miles of forested land that he had bought title to and named Santa Teresa Ranch. The family has since sold off most of the farm.

The dictatorship of the time threatened to repossess homesteaders' land if they failed to improve it, which meant clearing the forest to raise cattle and plant crops.

Unbridled expansionist policies eventually brought environmental and trade pressure to a head in the last decade, on fears the Amazon would be lost, hastening global warming.

BACKLASH

Government efforts to rein in agriculture also threaten to derail the very investments needed by farmers to keep yields improving in existing areas and for orderly, legal expansion.

Brazil's 5.3-million square mile area still has over 625,000 square miles of unutilized land that could be legally converted to agricultural ends, according to the IBGE.

Katia Abreu, a senator and the head of the National Confederation of Agriculture, estimates that current laws governing land use criminalize 70-90 percent of Brazil's 5 million growers and ranchers for cutting forest that had been state-sponsored under previous governments.

Some are guilty of illegal clearing after the laws had forbidden such practices, she admits.

"The bulk of them are more victims of bad enforcement of the law," Abreu said, adding that a new law before Congress should normalize most farmers' legal status.

The implications for global food prices could be profound. China, Europe and the Middle East are Brazil's main buyers and a couple percentage points variation in its output of soy, beef, sugar and coffee could send market prices reeling.

Val plans to invest 3 million reais ($1.8 million) to plant corn on 9 square miles of his 88 square miles of pasture. The remaining 94 square miles of his ranch must remain forested reserve in this part of the Amazon.

His farm is in legal order and thus would be eligible for government subsidized financing. But many farms are not.

Four hours south of Val's farm by twin-engine plane lies the 80-square-mile Falavinha integrated farm in Deciolandia, Mato Grosso. It was categorized as savanna biome, which means 20-35 percent of the farm had to be forested reserve.

But, after authorities redrew Brazil's biomes, the region may be forced to comply with Amazon Basin requirements of 50 percent reserve. The costs of replanting would be high.

Federal agencies are also notoriously slow to provide vital services. Farms bigger than 3 square miles must submit satellite maps of their land to agrarian reform agency Incra.

But farmers say Incra is understaffed for the workload as it is, and the government plans to eventually expand the number of farms to smaller properties that must submit maps.

"We spent 10,000 reais to complete the farm's mapping and submitted it a year ago and still nothing," the owner of the farm, Geraldo Falavinha, said over the roar of cotton gins. "We are locked out of government financing and need to invest."

WHERE'S THE BEEF?

The keystone to large-scale integrated farming in Brazil is cattle, especially as far as preservation of the Amazon and other tropical biomes are concerned.

In Para, Val says he will expand his herd to roughly 30,000 from 20,000.

A recent study by the Institute for Atmospheric Research Research singled out cattle ranching as the main agricultural source of pressure behind deforestation.

Inevitably, leaders in Brazilian agriculture and ranching will throw out numbers about the 137,000 square miles of pasture in Brazil that can be easily converted into farmland "without having to cut a single tree." Brazil currently plants 66,875 square miles to crops and commercial forest.

But converting pasture into planted area is not simple. It raises the question of where the cattle will graze.

Brazil's beef production is grass-fed, unlike in the United States and Europe where grain on feedlots is used mostly.

The U.S. writer on food Michael Pollan says cattle should be taken off "their typical feedlot diet of grain" and allowed "to eat grass", to help bring down sky-high grain prices.

In Brazil -- the world's top exporter of beef and a major grain producer -- many ranchers and farmers would disagree.

"Cattle need to eat more grain here to reach slaughter faster. There's less environmental impact," Darci Ferrarin Jr. said his DGF integrated farm in Sorriso, Mato Grosso.

Brazil could double or triple the cattle per hectare from the present average of nearly 1 head/ha simply by introducing grain to their diet, better breeding practices and fertilizing and replanting grasses in pastures, beef analysts say.

"We make more money from this type of farming, but nature and consumers benefit," he added, while leaning on one of his sister's prize-winning white Nelore heifers that stands nearly seven-feet-tall and weighs as much as a mid-sized car.

(Editing by Todd Benson, Kieran Murray and Alden Bentley)