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Brazil Faces Drop in Crop Productivity

One of the world's major producers of food needs to adapt its farming practices for climate change
Brazil - Mato Grosso



Flickr/openDemocracy

SAO PAOLO, Brazil – Higher temperatures, drastic changes in rainfall, lower productivity, more blight and disease – these are just some of the expected consequences of climate change in Brazil if the projections of 345 scientists who make up the Brazilian Panel on Climate Change (PBMC) prove true.

They predict that if present trends in greenhouse gas emissions continue, average temperatures in Brazil will be 3 to 6 degrees Celsius higher by 2100 than they were at the end of the 20th century.

Rainfall patterns could change drastically, increasing by up to 30 percent in the South and Southeast, while diminishing by up to 40 percent in the North and Northeast.

The forecasts, based on research over the last six years, are contained in a report that provides the most complete diagnosis yet of the future tendencies of the Brazilian climate.

The report will be presented at Brazil's first national conference on global climate change, to be held in São Paulo from September 9 to 13 and organized by the publicly-funded São Paulo Research Foundation. The data will then be included in the fifth report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, to be released two weeks later.

'A bit crazy'
The changes in temperature and rainfall will not be confined to Brazil, the largest country in South America, but will also affect neighboring countries.

"With the exception of Chile's central and southern coast, where the last decades have seen a cooling, there will be a rise in temperature in all the other regions of South America," said Jose Marengo, a climate scientist at Brazil's National Institute for Space Research who uses regional climate models to develop projections for the future.

"There is a feeling that the seasons have become a bit crazy, with more frequent extremes of climate."

Tornados, once a rare occurrence, will become more frequent. Big and medium-sized cities will become hotter, with altered rain patterns. Rainfall in the Amazon region and in the semi-arid Northeast could fall by 40 percent, whereas in the South and Southeast it could increase by 30 percent.

For the cerrado savanna region of the central plateau, a major cereal growing area, and the wetlands of the Pantanal, climate models also indicate significant changes, although the reliability of these projections is lower.

Little awareness
All these changes will have a dramatic effect on harvests in one of the world's major food producing countries, but Brazil's farmers have so far shown little awareness of the problems in store, and consequently have not begun to adapt to the changing climate. Monocultures continue to expand, advancing into the Amazon region and taking over the cerrado.

"We must act now to avoid a worsening situation," warned Eduardo Assad, one of the PBMC researchers, who works for Embrapa, the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation.

Suggested measures include investing intensively in mixed agricultural systems, and abandoning the practice of monoculture. Farmers should also increase the biological fixation of nitrogen, reduce pesticide use (since 2008, Brazil has been the world's biggest consumer), and increase crop rotation.

"The knowledge to do all this already exists, but we need stronger government guidance [for farmers]," Assad said. "We must increase productivity in the Midwest, Southeast and South to avoid the destruction of the Amazon. The reorganization of Brazil's rural space is urgent."

Crop losses are already being noted: Since 2000, the country has seen a fall in productivity in some crops and regions, principally in coffee, soy and maize, Assad said.

Hard to sustain
Soy will be the most affected. By the end of 2013, Brazil is expected to overtake the United States to become the world's major producer, but that position will be hard to sustain if the expected effects of climate change kick in.

Changes in soil humidity and air temperature will affect regions, such as the semi-arid Northeast, where lack of water is a constant. The productivity of basic crops such as maize, beans, cotton, cassava and rice will suffer, leading to a drop in income in the region that is already Brazil's most backward in terms of social indicators intensifying poverty.

The federal government's successful poverty reduction program, Bolsa Familia, will not be enough to stop a renewal of migration from the rural area to the cities, worsening infrastructure problems related to housing, transport and sanitation, officials fear.

Help in future planning
The researchers want their report to be used to guide the drawing up and implementation of public policies for climate change adaptation and mitigation, as well as to help companies in their future planning.

The report, the first by the PBMC, also marks Brazil's acceptance by the IPCC as a nation supplying projections on a planetary scale. This is because it has developed its own climate simulation model, the Brazilian Earth System Model – the only country in the southern hemisphere to do so.

The establishment of that model has enabled the scientists to reconstruct recent occurrences of the El Niño climate phenomenon – caused by abnormal heating up of the surface waters of the equatorial Pacific, which affects the rainfall regime in a large part of the planet – and simulate the effects of future El Niños.

This article originally appeared at The Daily Climate, the climate change news source published by Environmental Health Sciences, a nonprofit media company.

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