"Brazil Has to Invest More in Low
Agricultural engineer Eduardo Assad has devoted his life to studying climate change impacts on agriculture. According to the SEEG (Greenhouse Gas Emission Estimate System), agriculture is the second main cause for Brazil's greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for approximately 27 per cent of the total. The number one cause is land use change, which includes deforestation. Agriculture is also one of the sectors that have been most impacted by the climate crisis. I2008, Assad acted as one of the coordinators of a pioneering study titled Global Warming and the New Geography of Agricultural Production in Brazil, which estimated that Brazil would lose R$7.4 billion in its grain crops in 2020. In this interview with , Assad acknowledges that his colleagues and he were wrong in their projections. When we reached 2020, we realised that the loss was not 7 billion Brazilian reais, but rather 7 billion US dollars!, he says. The model worked, as it did show a trend but that trend had been far too "optimistic". Assad worked as Technical Coordinator for Agricultural Zoning of Climate Risks at the Ministry of Agriculture for almost 15 years. He played an active role in the development of Brazil's Low-Carbon Agriculture policy, also known as the ABC Plan. In 2011, he was appointed Secretary for Climate Change and Environmental Quality at the Environment Ministry. Assad points out that Brazilian investment in low-carbon agriculture is still too shy. The ABC Plans R$5 billion correspond to 2 per cent of what is provided in rural credit; it is close to nothing, he says. For Assad, Brazil also needs to pay more attention and allot more resources to family farming, in addition to diversifying agricultural production and fostering the bioeconomy. More than 50 per cent of all Brazilian farmers, that is, around 3.9 million people, live below the poverty line, and account for 6 per cent of the gross value of production; while less than 0.01 per cent of Brazilian farmers, that is, 25,000 people, account for 52 per cent of the gross value of production, he says. Assad also criticises the tendency to minimise damages caused by climate change. In a country that faces serious challenges related to its internal debt and its production, we must be able to say how much we are losing. As for solutions, Assad notes that the financial sector has become more and more involved in sustainable agricultural practices. This does not mean that the financial sector is nice, he explains they are simply following an international trend. Our work was pioneering, in the sense that we started testing models, and checking whether risk areas would increase or not. We were able to see that, if the areas that were fit for crops were reduced, the impact could reach R$7 billion. We were wrong. When we reached 2020, we realised that the loss was not 7 billion Brazilian reais, but rather 7 billion US dollars! That was a huge amount, much higher than the model had shown us. The model worked, as it did show a trend but that trend had been far too optimistic. Today, there are two groups engaged in this monitoring efforts: research institutions, and CONAB [National Food Supply Company]. CONAB produces some very interesting reports official figures but when you see them, you realise this is not what is happening in the field... In 2018 and 2019, the state of Parana suffered losses in the order of R$15 billion but CONAB did not show this. Its report indicated some productivity loss; then, in the 201920 harvest, those losses increased, and the numbers started to show. When you discuss these issues with agribusiness representatives, their position is, You must not talk about money only: you have to consider physical losses, or how many million tonnes. But I believe that in a country that faces serious challenges related to its internal debt and its production, we must be able to say how much we are losing. If you want me to talk about physical loss, we can. If you want to talk about financial loss, we can do that, too. But when they talk about gains, they only talk about financial gains, and do not want to discuss physical aspects. discussed this a while ago with the Ministry of Planning, and the response I heard from some economists was, This is peanuts; we provide R$250 billion in rural credit, so R$10 billion is close to nothing. My reply was a tad ironic: Please let me know how much we must lose before I should start worrying. You know there are losses, so show me what the problem is; show me its causes and consequences. More serious than that is the fact that we do know the solution but no-one is adopting it. What can bring us some relief is the fact that we have soil management and conservation practices in place, which have been adopted as public policy by the government, and which could minimise losses. An example of this is low-carbon agriculture. People who have adopted low-carbon agriculture technologies lost about 15 per cent of their crops when they faced severe droughts, but those who havent lost 25 per cent. We are monitoring this, too. The initial budget allocation was R$400 million. Later, once the government saw how important it was, and realised the political and environmental gains that it could generate, the budget rose to R$2 billion. At the end of the Temer administration and at the beginning of the Bolsonaro government, there was enormous pressure to bring the ABC Plan to an end. However, senior government officials understood that the plan generated positive results, as Brazil was under a lot of pressure regarding environmental issues. We insistently showed them that low-carbon agriculture could reduce emissions, and that this would be a major achievement in the area of mitigation. The ABC Plan budget then doubled to R$5 billion. These R$5 billion correspond to 2 per cent of what is provided in rural credit; it is close to nothing. More recently, the [original] plan underwent a comprehensive review, leading to the ABC+ Plan. There is still a huge gap, which is now attracting more attention and being discussed: family farming. There are still 4 million farmers who lack access to this funding. We cannot let this happen. Adaptation in urban areas is very important, because this is where more than 80 per cent of the population live. Whenever you have more intense rains, you will face problems. CEMADEN (National Centre for Monitoring and Early Warning of Natural Disasters) has proved this several times. As far as I know, we only have one city that has completed its contingency plan: Santos, in the state of Sao Paulo. The implementation of the ABC [Plan] was all about mitigation, and this was one of the few arguments that Brazil brought to Glasgow: that Brazilian agriculture is able to reduce emissions. But what could agriculture do in terms of adaptation? It could, for example, encourage agroforestry systems, or crop-livestock-forest integration systems. These systems are able to decrease temperatures, reduce wind speeds, increase the soil's ability to hold water, and curb erosion processes, thus reducing flooding in urban areas. After all, it's all interconnected. This is a difficult question because if a soybean producer lost 50 per cent of their harvest today, they would still be earning the equivalent of what they made last year. Is this a result of higher productivity? No, it was simply due to exchange rates. This is madness. Another thing that stands out is how these groups of commodity producers are rooted in this system of buying and exporting primary goods. It has been like this since the days when they extracted Brazilwood... There's no point in maintaining a business like that. People are beginning to realise that we need more integrated systems; otherwise, all escape valves will close. That's the kind of fight we are facing. On the one hand, there is a very strong conservative approach; on the other, a group is beginning to advance and expand this discussion, and this is gaining ground. The Safra Plan was created to support or enable farmers to plant their crops, but the funds can also pay for investments. The money goes into different credit lines, and can be used to buy machinery and fertilisers, or to build silos and other structures. This has been known for a long time. What no-one says is that large holding companies, such as large soybean producers, buy 60 per cent of the harvest before planting. So, when someone says that they are going to plant 1,000 hectares, and that they will use public money for that, 60 per cent, or 600 hectares, have already been bought. The Proagro [government programme] covers 60 per cent of the losses for small farmers, as well as 60 per cent of the costs. And these large holding companies buy 60 per cent of the harvest at the planting stage. The Ministry of Agriculture has published some figures about this: more than 50 per cent of all Brazilian farmers, that is, around 3.9 million people, live below the poverty line, and account for 6 per cent of the gross value of production; while less than 0.01 per cent of Brazilian farmers, that is, 25,000 people, account for 52 per cent of the gross value of production. While some have access to R$250 billion in credit, those below the poverty line receive R$30 billion. There's clearly something wrong there. We are talking about 60 million hectares of degraded pastures. Can you picture a recovery policy for 60 million hectares? No other country has anything close to that. Converting these 60 million hectares of degraded pastures, which have very low productivity, and encouraging people to integrate crops and livestock you would not have to change anything in the current structure of the sector, and in about a year, you would start seeing returns. For example, you get one hectare of bad pastureland, and in the following year, you would have, in addition to pastures, soy, corn, and so on. Then, instead of reaping 3 tonnes of soy, you would have 3 tonnes of soy plus 8 tonnes of corn, and an additional 7 arrobas of beef (approximately 105 kg) per hectare/year. Just by recovering these 60 million hectares with this production goal, you would generate large impacts in terms of greenhouse gas removal. I have always believed that illegal deforestation is a police matter. If you cut the forest, you must go to prison. There is no excuse that is the law. I think Philip Fearnside is right. We have to impose barriers to try to control this chaos related to land structure in the Amazon. Let's give the Amazon a break an Amazon moratorium so that we can take some time and try to reorganise it. Something will happen after these elections. It does not depend on us, but rather on buyers. Europe has already made its position very clear, and China is also sending very clear signals, despite its dubious policies. We risk shooting ourselves in the foot... We have to move towards a bioeconomy policy, where existing products can be leveraged. The financial sector, with the exception of official banks, has positioned itself very clearly after years and years of just talking about it. So, yes, they are exploring green meat and sustainable agriculture. Although their notion of sustainable agriculture is not ideal, they are seeking more information to work with their groups, their internal groups. I believe that the financial sector will be very instrumental in the future. Are they really that nice? No, they are not, but they are aligned with the international discourse. At a time when 30 world banks have joined forces to seek a solution to climate change, global warming, and sustainability [through a commitment made in November 2021 at COP26, the Climate Conference in Glasgow], Brazil cannot stay out of it. First degree in Agricultural Engineering from the Federal University of Vicosa (Brazil), and master's and doctoral degrees in Hydrology and Mathematics from the University of Montpellier (France). Mr Assad worked as a Researcher at EMBRAPA for 35 years; as National Technical Coordinator for Agricultural Zoning of Climate Risks at the Ministry of Agriculture (from 1996 to 2010); member of the Scientific Committee of the Brazilian Panel on Climate Change; and Secretary for Climate Change and Environmental Quality at the Ministry of the Environment (2011). He is currently an Associate Researcher at CEPAGRI (Centre for Weather and Climate Research Applied to Agriculture) at UNICAMP (State University of Campinas), and Professor at the Master's Programme in Agribusiness at FGV (Fundacao Getulio Vargas). (Entranced Planet) is a series of reports and interviews with new players and experts on climate change from Brazil and around the world. This special coverage will also focus on responses to the climate crisis during the 2022 general elections in Brazil and at COP27 (UN Climate Conference to take place in Egypt in November 2022). This project is supported by the Open Society Foundations.