“The Ministry of Agriculture confirms that we can triple (grain and oilseed) production without knocking down one more tree,” said Marina Silva, Brazil's Environment Minister in January.
“We have 222,000 square miles of abandoned, cleared land,” she adds. If she's right, that's about 140 million acres available for planting, beyond the existing soybean, corn, sorghum, tobacco and other field crop plantings here.
In the U.S., meanwhile, the National Agricultural Statistics Service estimates that the total U.S. soybean planted area was about 75 million acres, and USDA estimates Argentina's soybean harvested area last year to be around 40 million acres. Brazil comes in at about 48 million acres.
Some pretty big numbers she was throwing around.
But recently, Embrapa (the government ag research company) took a big step toward backing her up, indicating grain and oilseed production could be doubled just by using vacant pastureland. Specifically, it was Embrapa Cerrados, the branch of the company devoted to Brazil's vast savannah, known in Portuguese as the Cerrado.
It's more than a half billion acres of shallow-rooted trees and scrub which are low in nutrients and high in acid. Clearing land is often as easy as pulling a stout chain between two heavy tractors. It hardly rains at all from May through August. But it makes up for it by dumping 50 in. or more on the ground in the other eight months. In contrast, it might rain 34 in. in southern Illinois each year.
But intensive research has helped adapt soybeans to the longer daylengths as production moved north, and the Cerrados opened up to soybean production.
Embrapa Cerrados research reveals that of the 500 million acres of Brazilian Cerrado in 10 states, nearly 350 million acres are good for cattle or crops. But only 195 million acres of that total are now in use. About 150 million acres of that is pasture, and most of the rest is annual crops like soybeans, corn and edible beans.
The Cerrados is an ecosystem separate and distinct from, say, the Amazon Rainforest or the soils and climate of Brazil's South. Soybeans are grown in several areas of Brazil, including outside the Cerrados ecosystem.
The minimum environmental set-aside for Cerrados land is 20% (not counting several yards on either side of streams), but individual states can increase the minimum set-aside within their borders. The land calculations in the Embrapa Cerrados report are based on idle pasture already cleared, which could be used without altering the minimum environmental set-asides in place across the ecosystem.
There's a lot of land on which Brazilian farmers can plant soybeans that the U.S. may not plant next season, and to make up for some of the U.S. corn expected to go missing from international markets over the coming years. But that's tomorrow. Right now, Goiás' meat industry needs protein and energy for feed. The state — right in the middle of Brazil and completely within the Cerrado biosphere — is seeing more and more land go to sugarcane for fuel alcohol. And the vertically integrated pork and poultry operations that moved there in the first place to get closer to feed sources are now getting worried about shortfalls.
They recently got together with the state's ag federation and pointed out that the state will face a shortfall of about 3 million tons of soybeans to keep the state's crushing industry going. And they asked for the federation's support for a bill in the state legislature to set up to 80% of the Goiás soybean harvest aside solely for in-state use.
Federation President Macel Caixeta said Goiás farmers weren't in favor of that kind of law. “This measure could cause downward price pressure and hurt farmers who have been operating in the red for several years,” he says.
Processors in Goiás state have the capacity to crush 7 million tons per year, which is about equal to the state's yearly soybean production.