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CLIMATE CHANGE-BRAZIL: Farmers “Have Good Reason to Worry”

Fabiana Frayssinet

RIO DE JANEIRO, Sep 20 2011 (IPS) - Bananas are harvested where apples used to grow; cassava, a traditional crop, is disappearing from the Northeast; and the southeast is losing the fragrance of good coffee. This is the science fiction of a new distribution of crops in Brazil, South America’s agricultural powerhouse.

The government is starting to get ready for this open-ended story of science fiction. Only one thing is for sure: the bad guys are neither extraterrestrials nor robots, but the most fearsome human invention: climate change.

In the midst of unusual temperature swings and increasingly intense and frequent natural disasters, weather patterns are modifying landscapes and will also start changing harvests.

“It’s still early to categorically state that there are effects on agriculture,” said the Environment Ministry’s secretary of climate change, Eduardo Assad.

But it is not a far-off possibility, and Brazil, as the world’s third-largest exporter of agricultural products, has good reason to be worried, he told IPS.

“There is an increase in extreme weather phenomena, such as high temperatures, which can cause the flower buds on the coffee plants to abort, or low temperatures as well within a very short time period, which cause more severe frost in the south and more intense Indian summers, which are hurting productivity in grain crops and sugar cane,” he said.

In 2008, Professor Hilton Silveira Pinto at the University of Campinas, and Assad, with the Brazilian government’s agricultural research agency Embrapa, led a study on global warming and the new map of agricultural production in Brazil.

The study already warned back then that the rise in temperatures – along with more frequent drought and flooding, among other consequences – could cause grain harvest losses of up to 7.4 billion reals (4.6 billion dollars at today’s exchange rate) by 2020 and up to 8.7 billion dollars by 2070.

“The geography of agricultural production in Brazil would be profoundly modified,” the study said.

According to Assad, “there is a natural shift of certain crops towards the west-central part of the country, which is more stable in terms of climate. That is the case of soybeans, for example.”

The area planted in Arabica coffee, meanwhile, is shrinking, especially in the southeastern state of São Paulo, and Arabica will possibly be replaced by Robusta coffee, which has a weaker aroma and is considered to have an inferior taste and texture, Assad said.

Arabica could expand in the south, however, if climate change reduces the frequency of frost in that part of the country.

“There is a study that shows that if temperatures rise two degrees in the next few years, apples from Santa Catarina (a southern state) could be replaced by bananas,” said Assad, describing the new agricultural patterns that the government is attempting to prepare for.

The Embrapa study analysed nine Brazilian crops that account for 86 percent of the total area planted – cotton, rice, coffee, beans, sunflower, cassava or manioc, corn, soy and sugar cane – and projected their future distribution in accordance with the different scenarios for rising temperatures outlined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007 (AR4).

The area planted to sugar cane, the essential raw material for Brazil’s successful ethanol industry, could double, the study says.

But production of cassava, which is a key part of the culinary traditions of the semiarid Northeast, will likely shrink significantly in that area, while expanding in other regions.

For soy – one of the three leading crops in Brazil, along with rice and corn – the report predicts the worst scenario: the land planted to it could shrink by up to 40 percent by 2070.

For now, the modifications have not been reflected in the government’s accounts or the country’s agricultural trade surplus.

Total grain output of 162.9 million tons is projected for the 2010-2011 harvest, 9.2 percent higher than the previous harvest, according to the state-controlled food supply company CONAB.

“The record-high production levels show the strength of Brazil’s agriculture and the growing importance of Brazil as a global supplier of food,” Agriculture Minister Mendes Ribeiro Filho said.

“That confirms our contribution to fighting hunger in Brazil and in the world,” he said, referring to the strong prospects in agriculture that he attributed to weather conditions in most of the country’s farming regions and to the 5.3 percent expansion in the area planted, which has grown to a total of 49.9 million hectares.

But the current boom years and the rise in grain production could become a thing of the past if Brazil “does nothing to mitigate the effects of climate change and to adapt crops to the new scenario,” the authors of the 2008 study warn.

“There could be a shift in the distribution of plants to regions where they do not grow today, in search of better climate conditions, and areas that are presently the top producers of grains might no longer be suited for that purpose by the end of the century,” the report says.

There is in fact a recent example. The higher than normal rainfall that has led to flooding and wreaked havoc in Santa Catarina early this month caused nearly three million dollars in agricultural losses, according to the state’s Secretariat of Agriculture.

In addition, production of crops such as onions, wheat and tobacco dropped, and there were losses in livestock and dairy output.

To mitigate the impact of agriculture itself on global warming, caused by the sector’s emissions of greenhouse gases, the government is spending more than two billion dollars a year on low-carbon agriculture.

The funds go towards the restoration of grasslands, the integration of crops and livestock, direct seeding, biological fixation of nitrogen, and the planting of woodlands.

With these measures, Assad said, the carbon dioxide emitted by agriculture should be reduced by more than 100 tons by 2020, from 2005 levels.

Since 1996, the Agriculture Ministry has mapped out agricultural zones annually according to climate risk for each crop. This allows each municipality to determine the best season for planting in different kinds of soils and during different harvest cycles.

Historical climate data are taken into account, as well as studies of past and current trends, to make adaptations for crops such as soy, beans, coffee, corn, cotton, rapeseed, castor oil plant, cassava, rice, groundnuts and sugar cane.

Some banks already condition the granting of loans on the application of the Ministry’s agricultural zoning maps by farmers.

The measures to adapt agriculture to the new conditions include policies to reduce the use of the traditional slash-and-burn technique for clearing land for crops, an increase in biofuel production, reforestation, genetic improvement to create species that are more resistant to high temperatures, the introduction of new crops, and new production techniques.

“The country is well-prepared to deal with this question, based on sound scientific foundations,” Assad said.

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