Land use tool aimed at sustainable expansion of Brazilian soy farming

By Jane Byrne

- Last updated on GMT

'We have a better understanding now of all the social and environmental impacts of any kind of expansion we could be planning in our operations - we had nothing like this before in the market,' says Michel Santos, director of sustainability, Bunge     © GettyImages/petmal
'We have a better understanding now of all the social and environmental impacts of any kind of expansion we could be planning in our operations - we had nothing like this before in the market,' says Michel Santos, director of sustainability, Bunge © GettyImages/petmal
Technology is allowing producers a way to find already cleared land to grow soybeans sustainably in Brazil’s Cerrado and Amazon regions, keeping forests intact while maximizing economic returns, says a major soy trader and an environmental organization.

The Nature Conservancy and Bunge Limited, along with a coalition of other companies, NGOs, research organizations and government departments, launched the first version of Agroideal​ for Brazilian stakeholders in September last year.  

The tool, which is designed to allow participants in the soybean value chain assess the risks and opportunities of development, enabling intelligent planning for continued soy expansion without forest degradation, is now being opened up to a wider audience: 

“We are now launching this tool beyond Brazil for the first time. There are a number of international market actors who [we think] would be pretty interested in this,”​ David Cleary, director of agriculture at The Nature Conservancy, told us.

The upgraded version includes better functionality and expanded data. It is now available in English and Spanish as well as the original Portuguese, said Rodrigo Spuri, soy sector coordinator at The Nature Conservancy Brazil.

“In the Brazilian launch we had only one biome inside the system, the Cerrado; now we have inserted data from the Amazon Biome, including new indicators from a program monitoring deforestation there, we have included more languages and new search functions as well,” ​he said.

The trader's perspective...

Michel Santos, director of sustainability, Bunge, is enthusiastic about the technology:

“From a company perspective, this tool is bringing all the information onto one single platform, so it is quite innovative and it really helps us in terms of our planning, in terms of identifying the areas where [soy] expansion should take place in a more sustainable way.

“We have a better understanding now of all the social and environmental impacts of any kind of expansion we could be planning .. we had nothing like this before in the market.” 

Agroideal map 

map agrioideal

Nathalie Walker, senior manager, tropical forest and agriculture project, at the National Wildlife Federation, sees Agroideal as ​hugely beneficial. 

“Until now, it has been difficult to identify areas where economically viable farming can take place at low environmental and social risk. Agroideal's user-friendly, freely available online portal offers important information to farmers. It can support Brazil in reaching its goals to expand agriculture while also protecting its valuable ecosystems.” 

Agroideal data sample

land use 3

The no go zones 

Soy traders can select the specific area they want to assess and determine the amount of land that is available for extension, said Spuri. “You can also quantify the amount of land considered as risk areas for your company strategy.”

So a trusted source to tell soy growers where to plant, and which areas to avoid – the no go zones.

However, it is not only an environmental question; it is also a question of what land is economically viable and the yield history of that land, added Cleary. 

“Economic information is also pulled into the system so that you get an integrated response in your modelling. You can do a risk analysis on the environmental side but also a sort of opportunity analysis on the economic side and run the two together. 

“Two economic variables exist – one being the yield history of soy in that area and the other being the logistical costs such as where the land is in relation to a silo or a road or a rail-line and what implications that has for transport costs – those are the two elements in the economical calculation,” ​he explained.

The data are not, altogether, new but the value is in the fact the information has been curated from multiple sources and brought together on one platform, and Agroideal is not only for soy traders, it is equally useful for NGOs and governments, said Spuri.

“Important data are now consolidated in one system and available for risk assessments on native vegetation, on suitability, and on some social risks that we inserted, data considered relevant for whole the soy supply chain.”

Recent findings highlight that more than 750,000 km² or 18% of the Brazilian Amazon and 825,000 km² or 41% of the Cerrado have already been deforested.

Since 2011, the Cerrado has lost more land than the size of London City per year, and in the Amazon, between 2015 and 2016, deforestation increased 29% - an area twice the size of Rio de Janeiro City.

Source: (1) Ministry of the Environment, Brazil (2015). Mapeamento do us oe coberturavegetal do Cerrado (TerraCl as s). Ibama, Embrapa, INPE, UFG, UFU. (2) Noojipady, P, Morton, CD, Macedo, NM, Victoria, CD, Huang, C,  Gibbs, KH, Bolfe LE (2017). Forest carbon emissions from crop land expansion in the Brazilian Cerrado biome. Environmental Research Letters, 12, 025004.

Expansion on cleared land 

When asked whether soy farmers are attracted to this already degraded land in the Cerrado region, whether cultivation is happening, Cleary said: 

“It [the Cerrado] is a very large area and there is a lot of things happening within it; what we are finding is there is, actually, quite a lot of soy expanding over cleared pasture, but with the pasture being rented by farmers, and that is quite a good way of farmers getting some flexibility. They do not have to buy land to expand, they can rent it for a limited period and add or subtract from their planted area according to market conditions, and it is much easier to do that on land that has already been cleared. 

“At the same time, there are other parts of the Cerrado where you do have an expanding [agricultural] frontier going into a large area of intact vegetation. There, I think the hope is that you are still going to find, behind the frontier, considerable potential to intensify production – there is a market rationale for doing that as it is going to be closer to the transport infrastructure, for one thing, and so, as that happens, it is going to relieve pressure on the native vegetation. However, that kind of process takes a few years to play out. 

“Essentially, you have got to look at the medium term trends, and not just look at the past six months. I think there are parts of Cerrado where you can show expanding over cleared land makes economic sense for farmers and it is happening; the frontiers are more complicated, and we will have to wait a little bit to see what is really going on there.”

Future plans 

The team plans to include coverage of the Argentinian Chaco, where expansion is happening and the risk of deforestation is high. ​ 

“We are working on that. We are actually having the first workgroup meeting in Buenos Aires​ on May 10 so the process is starting there, but the system is not going to be up and running for the Chaco area for some time,”​ said Cleary. 

Moving into 2019, the team said it would also look to incorporate livestock mapping within the Cerrado, Amazon and, eventually, the Paraguayan Chaco regions where cattle can graze and grow. 

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