Visualizing a Global "Foodprint"

Visualizing a Global "Foodprint"

Brazil has long been the subject of environmentalists' scorn for its continued destruction of the Amazon rainforest. But earlier this month, at COP-16 in Cancún, the country made waves with a bold new plan to revamp its entire agricultural system — cutting carbon dioxide emissions by 170 million tons per year and saving at least as much by limiting further expansion of farms into forested jungle.

Though it's just now gaining a high profle, Brazil's "low-carbon agriculture" plan has roots reaching much farther back than last Wednesday's unveiling, and farther back, even, than President Luiz Lula da Silva's administration. The Economist, in this feature on Brazil's climb to tropical agricultural superstardom, describes how the nation has "revolutionized its own farms" through a wide-ranging, science-based program launched back in 1973, when a conservative military junta established the Empresa Brasileira de Pesquisa Agropecuária, or "Embrapa."

In what the Economist calls, "an unusual fit of farsightedness," the country’s generals saw past the limited gains of farm subsidies, and instead funneled resources into a publicly funded system of agricultural research. The results have been impressive: Without carving into pristine forest, and without relying on proprietary technologies, Brazil has managed to boost production by 365% in the past 10 years.

How Embrapa managed this Borlaugian feat spans genes to ecosystems. First, scientists focused on transforming Brazil's vast cerrado — or savannah — into arable land, with a soil improvement program in which massive amounts of lime were worked into the soils each year, to lessen their acidity. Researchers also bred new varieties of rhizobium, a nitrogen-fixing bacterium, in order to reduce the need for fertilizers on the cerrado. The second major focus was on the beef industry: Embrapa scientists went to Africa and brought back a grass called brachiaria; using conventional cross-breeding they created braquiarinha, a wildly prolific variety of tropical grass that has fueled Brazil's grass-fed beef industry. (Thirty years ago, a calf took roughly four years to grow to slaughterhouse size; now the average time is 18-20 months.) Thirdly, Embrapa took soybeans — a temperate-climate crop — and developed varieties not only suitable to Brazil's tropical climes, but also more tolerant of the cerrado's (still) acidic soils, and faster to mature (so fast, in fact, that they've enabled farmers to harvest a second annual crop). Finally, Embrapa has pioneered carbon-saving "no-till" agriculture, and is now planning a novel "forest, agriculture, and livestock integration" program in which trees and other perennial crops are threaded through fields so that cattle can forage. This technique helps to revive degraded pasture lands — a low-tech nod to ecological innovation.

Brazil's redoubled efforts to green its food system are remarkable enough in themselves. But they reflect a much larger shift in the international community, as scientists have come to recognize the enormous environmental costs of modern agriculture. In fact, when a team of the world's leading environmental scientists set out to define some safe boundaries for keeping the Earth habitable, it became stunningly clear how enmeshed agriculture is in our multiple, interconnected problems: From biodiversity loss and climate change to nitrogen pollution, habitat destruction, and dwindling freshwater resources, agriculture has a hand in them all. In fact, according to FAO data, if we continue farming and eating like we do, by 2050 we will need roughly 2.8 planets to sustain our oversized appetites.

That idea is rendered here visually in "Eating the Earth," a graphic from the 2010 Living Planet Report. Comparing diets in Italy, Malaysia, and the US, this data display also shows that Americans eat the most unsustainably, with a meat- and dairy-laden diet meaning that more land and energy are needed to produce each calorie of food. If the entire world were to eat like Americans, we would need nearly 4 planets' worth of resources by 2050. Even if we were all to eat like Malaysians, we would need the equivalent of 1.3 Earths.

So what's to be done? Well, the answers certainly don't lie in stuffing more cheese into the American diet, as much as the USDA wishes they did. Farming-dependent nations like Sweden are now experimenting with turning food and farm waste into renewable energy. Ocean-ringed nations like the Philippines are pioneering mangrove-friendly aquaculture. But Brazil's comprehensive, systems-approach to agricultural reform is perhaps the best example of progress we have to date. Relying mostly on public sector research, and including all the cogs in an agricultural system—livestock, seeds, fertilizers, water—it's an encouraging microcosm of what it will take to feed the planet in 2050, given that there is only one planet to feed upon.

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