Low-Carbon Agriculture: Brazil Shows the Way

Amidst the depressingly deadlocked climate talks in Cancun, a side event dedicated to agriculture and climate change provided at least one positive story. Gustavo Mozzer, a scientist with the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (EMBRAPA), a government agency, described the country’s Low-Carbon Agriculture Program, which he claimed would “cut direct farm carbon dioxide emissions by 170 million tons a year, and save as much again by curbing the invasion of rainforests by farmers.”

In fact, Brazil was able to come into this round of COP16 talks boasting that it had already met its 2020 emissions reduction target thanks, for the most part, to a reduction in deforestation in the Amazon.

Meanwhile, the government has been investing substantial amounts of public money into developing new crops and techniques that make its agricultural sector both productive and sustainable. And better still, because these innovations come out of the public sector rather than a private corporation, they are widely disseminated, affordable, and holistic in their approach. The nature of its mandate means that EMBRAPA has an equal, if not greater, interest in developing no-cost agricultural improvements as genetically-modified, patentable seeds.

New Scientist has the full story, but below are some of the highlights from Mozzer’s presentation:

Restoring Degraded Pasture

Mozzer claims that “a well-managed pasture can accumulate carbon. In fact our research shows it can accumulate so much that it more than cancels out the warming effect of methane and other emissions from cattle production.” The trick, EMBRAPA has found, is something called “forest, agriculture and livestock integration,” in which trees and other perennial crops are threaded through fields, and used for cattle forage.

Extending No-till Agriculture

Brazil pioneered “no-till agriculture,” which helps the soil retain carbon. Crops are harvested high on the stalk, which is then left to rot into a woven organic layer, into which next year’s seeds can be sown without needing to plow.

Bacterial Engineering

EMBRAPA has already created new varieties of soya and a super-productive grass variety called brachiaria to give to farmers. Its scientists are engineering new strains of nitrogen-fixing bacteria, which help enrich soil and reduce the need for artificial fertilizers.

Images: (1) Gustavo Mozzer speaking, via EMBRAPA; (2) No-till farming, by Gene Alexander for the USDA, via Wikimedia.