How sustainable cattle farming in Brazil could help to reduce carbon emissions

A research team from the University of Colorado Boulder, demonstrates the importance of customised assistance strategies to help Brazilian cattle ranchers adopt sustainable cattle farming practices and increase productivity.

According to new research from University of Colorado Boulder and the Climate Policy Initiative , providing customised training to Brazilian farmers to promote sustainable cattle farming can not only help to reduce carbon emissions, but also improve their livelihoods.

This study was recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the new study analyses the results of a randomised control trial, which is the examination into whether agricultural extension services can help to restore cattle pastures in Brazil. The experiment discovered that customised assistance and additional educational training not only supported farmers in sustainably increasing cattle production, but also offered financial benefits, as it essentially paid for itself in the process.

Additionally, the net impact of the programme on greenhouse gas emissions was equivalent to reducing carbon dioxide (CO2) emitted into the atmosphere by 1.19 million tons, which is the same amount that the neighbouring country of Paraguay emits in a year.

“It is an important piece of the puzzle to reach climate goals,” explained Barbara Farinelli, co-author of the study and Senior Agricultural Economist at The World Bank. “What is behind this success is that farmers become the transformational agent for climate goals.”

As Brazil is one of the world leading exporters of beef, it plays a significant part in the country’s economy and is the sole livelihood for many rural communities, such as Brazil. However, it has been noted by scientists that cattle farming is causing climate problems.

Climate effects of cattle farming

Livestock supply chains are responsible for 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions and account for as much as one third of total emissions in Latin America, resulting in hundreds of millions of tons of CO2 being emitted each year.

Mid-sized farms, like the ones analysed in this research study, are responsible for one third of Brazil’s cattle production. Unlike the cattle industry in the United States, which is dominated by feedlots, almost 90% of Brazilian beef is pasture or grass raised.

“What that means is a huge demand for pastureland. And a lot of that in the last few decades has come at the expense of the Amazon and Cerrado biomes,” commented Peter Newton, co-author of the study and Associate Professor of Environmental Studies at the University of Colorado Boulder.

The study was conducted when the Brazilian beef industry was encouraging farmers to return to the Amazon. This initiative was based on claims by major figures in the Amazonian agribusiness, that intensive cattle ranchers will enable more production of beef on less land, and therefore reduce deforestation.

However, a primary critique of this argument is that most smaller producers in Brazil lack the technical and financial resources to invest in practices that support producing more cattle on less land.

Thus, this new study joins a growing body of research, which demonstrates the importance of customised assistance in helping farmers adopt sustainable practices, increase productivity, and provide sound scientific evidence that can inform policy discussions in Brazil and beyond.

“We found that training plus technical assistance had significant impacts on the rate at which farmers restored pasture, on profits, and on carbon sequestration and emissions,” said Newton.

The benefits of one-on-one assistance

Many Brazilian farmers are not in a financial position to implement new sustainability practices, so Brazil has now implemented a nationwide policy that gives credit to ranchers and farmers to do so. However, researchers discovered that the barrier to making sustainable changes is not money, but knowledge.

“In this setting in particular, it is not that the main constraint for improving the operation of the ranch was money, it was really information,” said Arthur Bragança, lead author of the paper and Head of Policy Evaluation, Sustainable Agriculture, and Infrastructure at the Climate Policy Initiative.

The ABC Cerrado programme is financed by the World Bank through a grant from the Forest Investment Programme (FIP) and implemented by the National Service of Rural Learning (SENAR). The aim of the programme is to help farmers gain access to the specific information and skills needed to adopt sustainable cattle farming techniques. Since its creation in 2012, the programme has trained 7,800 farmers.

Applying sustainable cattle farming technologies

For this project, researchers created a robust, randomised controlled trial and recruited 1,369 producers from across the highlands of Central Brazil, known as the Cerrado, many of whom had never received previous training on sustainable cattle farming practices.

706 of the ranchers attended a 56-hour course in one of those four practices promoted by the programme, such as the restoration of pastures, rotational grazing or the use of no till agriculture. 311 of those 706 producers who received technical assistance one to one highlighted a statistically significant increase in all measured outcomes.

“The before and after was amazing,” explained Farinelli, who visited several ranches during the two-year project. “You could see with your eyes the pasture with applied- and non-applied technologies.”

The ranchers who received one-on-one help also increased their productivity rapidly within a short period of time. Within just two years, these ranchers increased their revenues by 39%. In the process of adopting more sustainable technologies, the researchers documented that many farmers also changed different aspects of their operations and adopted better management practices.

“That is the value of working with this type of primary data in which you go to the field,” said Bragança. “You learn about the behaviour of actual people.”

The climate cost of cattle farming

The cost benefit analysis of the programme was also impressive, incorporating the cost of carbon, the programme generated a climate benefit of $47.6m per year, making the programme cost effective even if the benefits only last a year. It is these climate and environmental benefits, which are 10 times higher than the economic benefits to the farmer.

Whilst this specific programme will not continue, similar low-carbon agricultural programmes in Brazil have received funding and will continue to explore the benefits of tailored assistance to farmers and ranchers.

“There is broad agreement among global food system scientists that we collectively need to dramatically reduce our consumption of beef,” Newton concluded. “But it seems extremely unlikely that beef consumption is going to end in any near-term future.

“So, it is also important to be grazing cattle in ways that have a lower environmental impact. If there are ways of producing meat and animal products in ways that reduce their climate impact, then that’s also a part of the picture, in addition to reducing consumption.”

This article was adapted from CU Boulder.

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