Grassland restoration training is a win-win for ranchers and foresters in Brazil

  • A recent study found that providing Brazilian livestock farmers with customized training in sustainable grassland restoration can bring long-term economic and environmental benefits.
  • Trained farmers saw an increase in livestock productivity and revenue, and a decrease in carbon dioxide emissions over a two-year period.
  • Researchers say restoring degraded pastures could help stem deforestation for agriculture by allowing farmers to increase livestock numbers without requiring more land.
  • Despite government-led programs promoting sustainable agriculture, experts say that restoring pastures is not yet fully prioritized.

Training ranchers in Brazil to restore degraded pastures can reduce carbon dioxide emissions, reduce deforestation for agriculture in the Amazon and Cerrado biomes, and increase their income, according to a recent study.

Posted in Proceedings of the National Academy of SciencesThe study found that farmers in Cerrado Savannah who received group training and dedicated technical assistance were able to increase their livestock productivity and increase their returns by 39%, researchers say a model that can be replicated in the Amazon.

The two-year training program is also linked to a reduction of 1.19 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions through a combination of carbon sequestration and total direct and avoided emissions.

“If you simply improve the quality of pastures, it will help with productivity and the environment,” the study’s lead author, Arthur Braganca, of the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro, told Mongabay by phone. “Restored land will contain more organic matter for livestock to eat and sequester carbon. More organic matter absorbs more carbon.”

Brazil is the world’s largest exporter of beef, and a third of it comes from medium-sized farms like the one that participated in the study. Agricultural expansion is the main source of deforestation in the Amazon, with up to 70% of the deforested land reported to be used for livestock.

Two ranchers on horseback lead a herd of cattle on a farm in the Brazilian Cerrado. This farm was not involved in the study but applies more sustainable management practices. Image courtesy of Peter Newton.

Land degradation can lead to reduced productivity, loss of vegetation cover, and reduced organic matter in the soil, according to Bragança. Up to 100 million hectares (247 million acres) of grassland in Brazil is considered degraded — an area larger than Venezuela — and is an environmental concern because land degradation is one of the biggest contributors to climate change, according to the IUCN.

The research focused on a government-led credit initiative in Brazil known as the Low Carbon Agriculture Program (ABC in Portuguese). The program aims to reduce carbon emissions by offering low-interest loans to farmers who want to implement sustainable agricultural practices, such as crop, livestock and forestry integration, biological nitrogen fixation, and pasture restoration.

The study analyzed the impact of providing rangeland restoration training under the ABC program to 1,369 livestock keepers. One group received no training, 395 producers received 56-hour training, and 311 received training sessions plus additional customized technical assistance, which included monthly visits from field technicians.

The data found that only farm owners who received training and technical assistance showed significant improvements in productivity, revenue, and carbon emissions. The session alone had no effect.

“The bulk of Brazilian agricultural policy is focused on granting subsidies and credit to producers,” Bragança said. He added that while credit was important, his research found that ranchers made sustainable changes to their properties only when they received dedicated training. “This suggests that the problem is not a lack of money, but a lack of information,” Bragança said.

Cattle ranchers on horseback collect and move livestock.  This cattle farm in the Brazilian Cerrado is currently implementing more sustainable management practices.
Cattle ranchers on horseback collect and move livestock. This cattle farm in the Brazilian Cerrado is currently implementing more sustainable management practices. Image courtesy of Peter Newton.

Environmental benefits of grassland restoration

Only 20% of Brazilian producers currently receive technical assistance that can help them implement sustainable management on their farms, according to the study. “Having policies that improve access can be one way to increase productivity and help the environment, as well as provide food security and more income,” Braganca said.

The experts also highlighted the negative effects of compensation programs for degraded lands.

Rafael Feltran Barbieri, chief economist at the World Resources Institute (WRI) in Brazil, told Mongabay via email. His research, independent of the Bragança Study, found that 15 million hectares (37 million acres) of the Brazilian Amazon were cleared between 2010 and 2020 to compensate for degraded and abandoned land.

Restoring pastures can help reduce deforestation and free up land to restore local vegetation, without affecting Brazil’s agribusiness, said Ricardo Rodriguez, a professor at the University of São Paulo who was not involved in either study. “By using livestock technology, we can liberate up to 32 million hectares [79 million acres] of degraded pastures in order to restore them to other uses, while maintaining the same amount of livestock,” he told Mongbai over the phone.

Peter Newton, of the University of Colorado Boulder in the US, who co-authored the study with Braganca, agreed that restoring grasslands can reduce the need for deforestation for agriculture and reduce pressure on natural habitats.

“Livestock farming in the Amazon and Cerrado has a relatively low stocking density with just a few livestock per hectare,” Newton told Mongabay by phone. “If you can graze more cows on the same acreage, that, in principle, reduces the need for deforestation,” he said, adding that this “may only be true if combined with policies to prevent agricultural expansion.”

Livestock farming is a major cause of deforestation in Brazil.  Experts say restoring degraded and abandoned pastures could help reduce rates of deforestation.
Livestock farming is a major cause of deforestation in Brazil. Experts say restoring degraded and abandoned pastures could help reduce rates of deforestation. Image © Marizilda Cruppe / Greenpeace.

But degraded pastures and the need for more land may not always be the root cause of agricultural expansion, according to Celso Manzato, a researcher at Embrapa, the agricultural research arm of the Brazilian Ministry of Agriculture. “Although livestock is usually associated with deforestation, it is actually a strategy for people to illegally chop timber,” Manzato told Mongabay by phone. “After getting the firewood, they look for a way to legalize the land that is in specific public areas. Livestock is the least expensive way to occupy an area.”

Logging activities contribute significantly to deforestation in the Amazon region. Between August 2019 and July 2020, 464,000 hectares (1.15 million acres) of rainforest were cleared, mostly illegally. WRI’s research shows that turning forests into pastures may be a form of land tenure security or land speculation, rather than making a profit.

“[Deforestation] It is a complex problem that requires a lot of solutions,” Newton said. “Agriculture has a huge global land footprint. And in places where land use is inefficient or harmful to the environment, such as the Amazon and Cerrado, sustainable intensification may be part of the solution.”

Restoring pastures could also help reduce the climate impact of global beef consumption, which Newton said is unlikely to end soon. “Reducing the consumption of environmentally intensive products like beef is important, but at the same time, that doesn’t mean we can’t do things at the same time on the production side,” he said. “This is part of a wide range of practices that farmers around the world, from crop and livestock producers, can do to produce more on less land.”

Cattle herds in the Amazon and Cerrado tend to have a few heads of cattle per hectare.  Restoring pastures could increase the number of livestock in the same area, which the researchers say could reduce the need for deforestation.
Cattle herds in the Amazon and Cerrado tend to have a few heads of cattle per hectare. Restoring pastures could increase the number of livestock in the same area, which the researchers say could reduce the need for deforestation. Photo © Tommaso Protti/Greenpeace.

Prioritize the restoration of pastures

The original ABC plan expired in 2020 and is succeeded by ABC+, which will run through 2030. It intends to reduce carbon emissions by 1.1 billion metric tons by 2030, seven times the original ABC plan, and includes restoring degraded areas as a key way to promote sustainable agriculture.

However, grassland restoration is still in its early stages, particularly in poor areas and in areas where agricultural frontiers are expanding, says WRI’s Feltran-Barbieri. Moreover, the budget for grassland restoration indicates a lack of prioritization.

“In the past nine years, less than $7 billion has been contracted to restore pastures, which is less than 0.2% of the total rural credit contracted in this nine-year period,” said Veltrane Barbieri. “This amount is insufficient to recover the 5% of the pastures that must be restored annually.”

He added that technology to restore degraded grasslands in Brazil is already widely available, and that restoring even a fifth of degraded grasslands could help Brazil achieve its Paris Agreement climate goals, known as its Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC). “It would increase production, allow the country to meet its Nationally Determined Contributions, and break the cycle of deforestation of highly biodiverse primary forests.”

Banner picture: The researchers said that ranchers who received dedicated training made more sustainable changes to their properties, including restoring pastures, which led to economic and environmental benefits. Photo © Riccardo Funari/Greenpeace.

quotes:

Bragança, A., Newton, P., Cohn, A., Assunção, J., Camboim, C., de Faveri, D., … Searchinger, T.D. (2022). Extension services can enhance pasture restoration: Evidence from Brazil’s Low Carbon Agriculture Scheme. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 119(12). doi: 10.1073/pnas.2114913119

Feltran-Barbieri, F., & Féres, J. G. (2021). Degraded pastures in Brazil: improving livestock production and restoring forests. Royal Society of Open Science, 8(7). doi: 10.1098/rsos.201854

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Agriculture, agroecology, carbon conservation, carbon emissions, carbon footprint, carbon sequestration, livestock, pastures, livestock, climate change, conservation, conservation technology, deforestation, degraded land, environment, agriculture, food security, land use change , pastures, farms, livestock, research, restoration, soil carbon, sustainability

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