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Improving carbon storage in pastures requires both training and support of ranchers, study shows

By Sarah Brown, Mongabay

Training cattle ranchers in Brazil to recover degraded pastures could curb carbon dioxide emissions, scale down deforestation for agriculture in the Amazon and Cerrado biomes, and increase their income, according to a recent study.

Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the study found that farmers in the Cerrado savanna who received group training and customized technical assistance were able to increase their cattle productivity and boost their revenue by 39%, a model researchers say could be replicated in the Amazon.

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

“If you simply improve the quality of pastures, it will help both productivity and the environment,” study lead author Arthur Bragança, from the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro, told Mongabay by phone. “The recovered land will have more organic matter for cattle to eat and for carbon sequestration. More organic matter absorbs more carbon.”

Brazil is the world’s largest exporter of beef, a third of which comes from midsized ranches like the ones involved in the study. Agricultural expansion is the leading source of deforestation in the Amazon, with up to 70% of deforested land reportedly used for cattle ranching.

Land degradation can lead to decreased productivity, a loss of vegetation cover, and less organic matter in the soil, according to Bragança. Up to 100 million hectares (247 million acres) of pastures in Brazil are considered degraded — an area larger than Venezuela — which is an environmental concern as 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 (known by the acronym ABC in Portuguese). The program aims to reduce carbon emissions by providing low-interest loans to farmers who want to implement sustainable agricultural practices, such as crop-livestock-forest integration, biological nitrogen fixation, and pasture recovery.

The study analyzed the impact of providing training in pasture restoration under the ABC program for 1,369 cattle ranchers. One group received no training, 395 producers received a 56 hours of training, and 311 received the training course plus additional customized technical assistance, which included monthly visits from field technicians.

The data found that only those ranchers who received both the training and the technical assistance showed significant improvements in productivity, revenue, and carbon emissions. The course alone had no impact.

“The biggest part of Brazilian agricultural policy is focused on giving subsidies and credit to producers,” Bragança said. He added that although credit is important, his research found ranchers made sustainable changes on their property only when they received customized training. “This suggests the problem isn’t a lack of money, but a lack of information,” Bragança said.

Environmental Benefits of Pasture Recovery

Just 20% of Brazilian producers currently have access to technical assistance that can help them implement sustainable management on their ranches, according to the study. “Having policies that improve access could be one of the ways to increase productivity and help the environment, as well as provide food security and more income,” Bragança said.

Experts also shed light on the negative effects of compensation programs for degraded lands.

“In the whole country, but essentially in the Amazon, the traditional way of compensating for production losses caused by degraded or abandoned pastures is to expand the frontier to new pastures at the expense of deforestation,” Rafael Feltran-Barbieri, senior economist at the World Resources Institute (WRI) in Brazil, told Mongabay by email. His research, independent of Bragança’s study, found that 15 million hectares (37 million acres) of the Brazilian Amazon were deforested between 2010 and 2020 to compensate for degraded and abandoned land.

Ricardo Rodrigues, a professor at the University of São Paulo who was not involved with either study, said pasture restoration could help reduce deforestation and free up land for the recovery of native vegetation, without affecting Brazil’s agribusiness sector. “Using livestock technology, we could free up to 32 million hectares [79 million acres] of degraded pastures for restoration for other uses, while maintaining the same amount of cattle,” he told Mongabay by phone.

Peter Newton, from the University of Colorado Boulder in the U.S., who co-authored the study with Bragança, agreed that pasture restoration could reduce the need for deforestation for agriculture and lessen the pressure on natural habitats.

“Cattle ranching in the Amazon and Cerrado have relatively low stocking density with few head of cattle per hectare,” Newton told Mongabay by phone. “If you can graze more cows on the same amount of space, then that leads, in principle, to less need for deforestation,” he said, adding that this “may only be true if coupled with policies to prevent agricultural expansion.”

But degraded pasture and the need for more land may not always be the root cause of agricultural expansion, according to Celso Manzatto, a researcher at Embrapa, the agricultural research arm of Brazil’s agriculture ministry. 

“Although livestock is normally associated with deforestation, it’s actually a strategy for people to illegally log wood,” Manzatto told Mongabay by phone. “After getting wood, they search for a way to legalize the land that is in designated public areas. Livestock is the lowest-cost way to occupy an area.”

Logging activities contribute significantly to deforestation in the Amazon. Between August 2019 and July 2020, 464,000 hectares (1.15 million acres) of rainforest were cleared, most of it illegally. The WRI research shows that converting forests to pastures may be a form of securing land tenure or of land speculation, rather than to make a profit.

“[Deforestation] 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 environmentally damaging, like the Amazon and Cerrado, sustainable intensification may well be part of the solution.”

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

Prioritizing Pasture Recovery

The original ABC plan ended in 2020 and was succeeded by ABC+, which will continue until 2030. It intends to slash carbon emissions by 1.1 billion metric tons by 2030, seven times as much as the original ABC plan, and includes recovery of degraded areas as a key means of promoting sustainable agriculture.

However, pasture recovery is still in its early stages, especially in poorer regions and in areas where agricultural boundaries are expanding, WRI’s Feltran-Barbieri said. Moreover, the budget allocated to pasture recovery suggests it’s not being prioritized.

“In the last nine years, less than $7 billion was contracted for recovery of pastures, which represents less than 0.2% of the total rural credit contracted in this nine-year period,” Feltran-Barbieri said. “This amount is insufficient to recover 5% of the pastures that need to be recovered annually.”

He added that the technology to recover degraded pastures in Brazil is already widely available, and that recovering even a fifth of degraded pastures 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 NDC, and break the cycle of deforestation of highly biodiverse primary forests.”

The Daily Yonder provides news, commentary, and analysis about and for rural America. You can see daily coverage at This article is republished from Mongabay, is a nonprofit environmental science and conservation news platform that produces original reporting in English, Indonesian, Spanish, French, Hindi, and Brazilian Portuguese. The organization has more than 800 correspondents in some 70 countries and is dedicated to evidence-driven journalism.

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