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Intensification in the world’s largest agricultural frontier: Integrating food production, water use, energy demand, and environmental integrity in a changing climate

During the last 20 years Brazil became a major producer and exporter of soybeans and corn mainly by expanding cropping into its Amazon rainforest and savanna woodlands. Brazil is now second only to the United States and its goal is to double agricultural production to meet increasing global demands.

Primary Investigators:

Sponsor:

      • Woods Hole Research Center

Abstract:

During the last 20 years Brazil became a major producer and exporter of soybeans and corn mainly by expanding cropping into its Amazon rainforest and savanna woodlands. Brazil is now second only to the United States and its goal is to double agricultural production to meet increasing global demands. This project investigates how water and energy may be affected by, and potentially limit, further agricultural intensification. The project will consist of three main parts. The first part will be farm-scale field experiments to evaluate how more intensive crop management influences emissions of greenhouse gases from soils, water quality and habitats in streams, and demands for energy. The second part will investigate how the distributions of crops within this agricultural frontier region respond to farm management decisions, government policies, global greenhouse gas concentrations, and climate. The final part will use computer models to investigate the potential responses of the food production system, the water cycle, and energy use and demand to changing climate and different potential pathways of agricultural intensification. This proposal addresses the globally important issue of how to conserve the rich biodiversity of Amazon forests and Cerrado woodlands, maintain a stable climate, and contribute to global food security. It will provide new knowledge about the implications of the intensification of soybeans and other crops for regional climate, the quality of water and stream habitats in tropical watersheds, and energy production. Results will be transmitted to policymakers and producers in Brazil through direct communication with state and federal government agencies; a 10-week immersion Policy Lab in which US and Brazilian graduate students will use science from this project to create policy papers; and direct interactions with a major Brazilian soybean producing company to study crop management options.

This project evaluates the tradeoffs inherent in balancing increased food production and its associated demands for water, energy, and land with the conservation of the Amazon and Cerrado environments of Brazil, the Earth’s largest remaining tropical forests and woodlands. The overarching question is whether this balance can be achieved through rapid and sustained intensification of food production on already cleared lands. Achieving this transition, while avoiding the environmental costs associated with intensive agriculture in other regions, and minimizing vulnerability to a changing climate, is one of the world?s greatest food, water, and energy challenges. This project will develop new understanding of how increased food production will impact and depend upon water, nutrient, and energy. It will advance the development of state-of-the art prognostic computational models of tropical meteorology, ecology, hydrology, and cropping to analyze the impacts of deforestation, agricultural intensification, and increasing greenhouse gasses on mesoscale convection, total and seasonal rainfall, land surface, forest health, and crop production temperature. It will lead to more accurate predictions of the downstream effects of intensive agriculture that will be relevant across tropical South America where the least information is available and greatest agricultural land transformations on Earth now occur. This project will contribute to the development of new fine-scale climate modeling and a tropical crop version of the Community Land Model 5, one of the most widely used land surface models. Data from this project will be made widely available using the cyberinfrastructure built by NSF and other federal agencies for sharing and moving large amounts of data. It will advance understanding of climatic thresholds for tropical crops, the vulnerability of crops to climate extremes, and how those will change in the future as cropping intensifies and expands.

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