Bad weather knocks down Brazil’s grain production as ‘exhaustively forewarned’

Bad weather knocks down Brazil’s grain production as ‘exhaustively forewarned’

  • Brazil’s agricultural GDP declined by 8% in the first quarter of 2022 due to a severe drought in the country’s south caused by a rare triple-dip La Niña.
  • In Rio Grande do Sul, the nation’s southernmost state, 56% of last year’s total soy harvest was lost, harming thousands of farmers.
  • Scientists warn that climate change will make Brazil’s southern region, an agribusiness stronghold, widespread crop losses more common.
  • Despite warnings, climate denial in the agriculture sector is getting in the way of mitigation efforts as the government of President Jair Bolsonaro and the agribusiness lobby push an anti-environmental agenda.

When Brazilian farmer Hamilton Guterres Jardim realized the latest drought had wiped out two-thirds of his soy crop, he felt emotionally and financially shaken up, he told Mongabay. As a resident of Palmeira das Missões, a rural town in Brazil’s southernmost state of Rio Grande do Sul, and a director of the state agricultural federation, Farsul, Jardim also witnessed the upheaval of hundreds of other lives due to the lack of rain.

Smallholder dairy farmers’ pastures dried up, he said, forcing them to switch to the suddenly exorbitantly priced soybean meal to survive; many sold their land and livestock and moved to impoverished urban peripheries. As supply dwindled, milk prices soared — a 66.5% increase in the past 12 months, according to the official price index. Medium-sized producers without insurance were forced to take onerous loans to fund the next harvest, and many of them haven’t been able to pay off past debts. The value of unpaid farm loans rose by 103% in the year to February 2022, according to Brazil’s central bank.

Brazil’s agribusiness GDP declined by 8% in the first quarter of the year, according to federal government data. Over the last two harvests, soy and corn, which together account for 88% of Brazil’s national grain production, came in 47 million metric tons below expected production due to adverse weather conditions, according to ministry of agriculture data. Soy production dropped by 14% this year.

Grain farmer Hamilton Guterres Jardim irrigated his fields to try to keep his soy crop alive, but still lost two thirds of it. Image courtesy of Hamilton Guterres Jardim.

With an election slated for October, unrest over inflation and food prices may have dramatic political consequences for the incumbent, President Jair Bolsonaro. In office since 2019, his administration doubled down on an agenda that’s unabashedly pro-monoculture for the past four years, in the process cutting funding for, and undermining, environmental policies. Deforestation under Bolsonaro has soared. But with climate instability wiping out key crops, the administration’s strategy may prove to be a long-term shot in the foot, experts say.

Jardim’s state, an agriculture stronghold that saw record-high temperatures last year, was hit the hardest: the latest estimate from the National Supply Company, a unit of the agriculture ministry, is that Rio Grande do Sul lost 56% of its soy harvest in 2021.

“This was exhaustively forewarned,” Eduardo Assad, from the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (Embrapa), another government agency affiliated with the agriculture ministry, told Mongabay by phone. Assad first raised the alarm 15 years ago after running a series of climate change models, and has warned the agribusiness sector about increasing crop risk ever since.

Eight of the last 10 soy harvests in Rio Grande do Sul produced lower-than-expected yields due to bad weather, according to Embrapa data. “The recommended adaptation measures, especially soil management, were not done. The only outcome is crop losses. We can’t make miracles,” Assad said.

Soy plant.
Soy production in Brazil’s southernmost state is declining due to adverse weather. Climate models predict the trend will only worsen in the coming decades. Image courtesy of Embrapa.

Climatologists point to a rare three-year-long La Niña, which sees cooler ocean temperatures and global shifts in rain patterns, as the leading cause for last year’s poor harvest. El Niño and La Niña events have become more frequent and more severe over the past 70 years, according to the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report.

Brazil’s economy is still grappling with the economic consequences of this climate turmoil. Despite losses, the country managed to export record-breaking volumes of soybean oil in the first quarter of 2022, driving up domestic prices for other industries, including beef and milk.

But crop failures on this scale are likely to become more frequent as a future with even higher climate risks for soy hangs over Brazil’s farmers, experts say. Scientists say the continued loss of forest could slow the formation of the Amazon’s “flying rivers” — masses of vapor from the forest’s transpiration that form much of the rain in the southern part of the continent. Rainfall has been below historical averages in recent years.

According to Jonas Jägermeyr, a climate scientist and crop modeler at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Sciences, none of the climate scenarios works out well for Brazil.

“The U.S. and Brazil are the hotspots of soybean declines,” Jägermeyr told Mongabay by phone, citing his 2021 modeling research published in Nature Food. “There will be adaptation — farmers will change their behavior, use more fertilizer, or even switch to different crops — but this is a warning that the climate signal does not look very good.”

Hamilton Jardim's soy plantation.
Hamilton Jardim’s soy plantation. Despite using irrigation, which may further stress water shortage during a drought, he lost 66% of his yield. Image courtesy of Hamilton Guterres Jardim.

Embrapa’s Assad said large plantations need trees to create a buffer for the heat, protecting crops and livestock from the harsh sun while counteracting climate change. “Integrated systems allow farmers to rotate between soy, corn and pasture while keeping water in the soil. It deepens roots and minimizes problems for farmers,” he said. But federal investment in this kind of low-carbon agriculture has been minimal.

Deforestation associated with soy cultivation and cattle ranching contributes to almost half of Brazil’s total greenhouse gas emissions, according to 2020 data by the Greenhouse Gas Emission Estimation System run by the Climate Observatory, a network of Brazilian civil society organizations advocating for climate action. Tree cover loss in the Amazon Rainforest could also trigger runaway climate consequences that the agriculture sector would be the first to feel.

Despite this, the agribusiness lobby in Congress serves as Bolsonaro’s support base to push his anti-environmental policies, and climate change denial remains widespread. “It has been like talking to a wall,” Assad said.

Jardim, the soy farmer, said he’s resting his hopes on wheat for the next harvest, taking advantage of the supply shortage caused by the war between Ukraine and Russia, the two biggest producers of the grain. Meanwhile, Assad and other scientists are pushing for Brazil’s agriculture sector to invest in nature-friendly practices to prevent further losses: “We have solutions available to us, so let’s solve this.”

Banner image: Soy and corn make up 88% of Brazil’s grain production, but climate models show that climate risk will increase for both crops in the coming decades. Image courtesy of the Brazilian Confederation of Agriculture and Livestock.

Citation:

Jägermeyr, J., Müller, C., Ruane, A. C., Elliott, J., Balkovic, J., Castillo, O., … Rosenzweig, C. (2021). Climate impacts on global agriculture emerge earlier in new generation of climate and crop models. Nature Food, 2(11), 873-885. doi:10.1038/s43016-021-00400-y

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