"What is at stake is very critical, because the deforestation of hundreds of thousands of hectares due to biofuel expansion would represent an environmental disaster in terms of biodiversity and the release of carbon emissions into the atmosphere."
Director for South American Conservation Strategies
By Cara Goodman
A new report (.pdf) coauthored by The Nature Conservancy says that global demands for biofuels could result in even more destruction of Brazil's tropical grasslands — if the growth in biofuel crops isn't properly managed.
But the Conservancy believes that biofuel expansion in Brazil doesn't necessarily have to mean the destruction of natural habitats, according to David Cleary, director for South American Conservation Strategies at the Conservancy and co-author of the study.
"While Brazil is well on its way to becoming an agricultural superpower, it can also become an environmental model," says Cleary. The report argues that Brazil should channel its agricultural expansion into lands that have already been cleared for cattle ranching, and that the country should move to conciliate agriculture and more intensive ranching.
"Biofuel and land use is one of the principal environmental issues of our time," adds Cleary. "What is at stake in Brazil is very critical, because the deforestation of hundreds of thousands of hectares due to biofuel expansion would represent an environmental disaster in terms of biodiversity and the release of carbon emissions into the atmosphere."
Biofuels Expansion in Brazil: Threat or Opportunity?
The report, coauthored by the Conservancy and LMC International, a respected U.K. agricultural commodities consultancy and market intelligence group, says that between 29 and 133 million acres of land will be required to meet the global demand for biofuels up to 2014.
To meet that demand, South America could have to begin growing biofuel crops on an additional 17 to 124 million acres of land. Much of this expansion will occur in Brazil because the country's soil and climate create the right conditions for growing biofuel crops, such as sugarcane and soy.
But if biofuels expand in Brazil at the expense of natural grasslands and forests, it will be a disaster for both the country's biodiversity and carbon emissions.
However, the report argues that such impacts could be minimized if expansion is channeled into areas already cleared for pastures or cropland.
To free up land to expand crop production and channel expansion to already deforested areas, the report recommends an increase in herd density for raising cattle and better integration between ranching and farming.
Certification of Biofuels Could Be a Big Conservation Step
And if biofuel plantations are managed to the standards set by Brazil's Forest Code, which requires that landowners conserve a percentage of their land, Brazil's biofuels industry can be part of a coordinated drive to reduce carbon emissions in Europe and the United States — as long as expansion is channeled into areas already cleared.
If expansion into already cleared areas is well documented by satellite monitoring systems, this will likely jump-start certification systems that lead to a greater demand for carbon-neutral agricultural products in commodities markets — truly a cutting edge priority for conservation in a warming world.
With proper monitoring and certification systems in place, consumers of Brazilian biofuels in Brazil and beyond could be confident they are not driving deforestation or conversion of grasslands.