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The challenges of land use intensification

From 2000 to 2016, the production of grains and cereals went from 100.3 million tons to 186.3 million tons, according to Conab (National Company for Food Supply), an 85.8% increase in the period. Between 2000 and 2015, production totaled 207.8 million tons, 107.2% up. In sixteen years, the area allocated to grow grains and cereals increased 54.1%, rising productivity by 63.5% (tons/hectare).


In Brazil, this context represented higher domestic supply and exportations and lower inflation. This dynamism in the Brazilian agriculture is attributed to greater use of technologies, namely genetics, agrochemistry and machinery, which allow both the use of soil in regions of agricultural frontier, usually not very fertile, as well as the sowing of a second or even third crop in a year-crop. Data show that the increase of land use and second crop production are much more significant than in the first or summer crops.


In the 2000/01 crop, Brazil seeded 45.6 million hectares with temporary crops and 6.2 million hectares with permanent crops. Of that total, 37.8 million hectares (73%) were allocated for grains and cereal crops of which 88% was summer crops and 12%, second or winter crops. In the 2015/16 season, the total of temporary and permanent crops reached 76.8 million hectares, 48.2% up, and grains and cereal crops, 58.3 million hectares, 54.1% up, accounting for 75.6% of the total sown. Last season, 77.5% of the area with grains and cereal was sown in the summer and 22.5%, in the second crop. While the annual growth rate of the area planted with grains and cereal was 2.34%, summer crops increased 1.47% per year, and second crops, 6.72% per year.


In 16 years, the area cropped with rice decreased 1.2 million hectares (38.2%) in Brazil; the area with beans decreased more than 1 million hectares (26.8%) in the same period; and summer corn area, 5.1 million hectares (49%). Thus, the increase of 20.5 million hectares of planted area was due to soybean crops (+ 19.3 million hectares, a staggering 138% up) and second crop corn (8.1 million hectares, or 334.2% up). However, other eight cultivations also had their areas enlarged, although less intensely. In Mato Grosso, for example, cotton started to be cultivated after soybean in the same year-crop. In Rio Grande do Sul, rice areas started to be cultivated with soybean, interleaving sowing activities after rice harvesting, or even as one of the main crops year by year.


In general, although the sowing of the second crop occurs in a less favorable weather period, the volume produced by unit of area continues to increase in most crops. Productivity has also been rising in most winter and second-crop corn.


Corn production rises were obtained mainly through productivity increases (14.2% in the summer in the last 15 years and 45.7%, in the second crop) and area expansion to frontier regions, besides the intensification of sowing during the second crop rather than the summer crop.


Regarding soybean, productivity has not increased much in the last 16 year-crops, despite the larger sown area. Weather issues and sowing anticipation may have affected yield per hectare. With the intensification of the second crop sowing (corn, cotton, beans, etc.), the period of soybean sowing needed to be anticipated aiming at harvesting in a favorable period for sowing a second crop, mainly corn.


More intense land use in two or more crops in the same year-crop leads to some questions: Can the second crop increase the risks of weather, phytosanitary and market issues? In the long-term, will the consecutive soil use jeopardize productivity? What are the agricultural challenges of the productive systems currently used? Is it possible to increase crops productivity even more? At which costs? Is more intense use of irrigation viable? How would that affect water use? There are uncertainties regarding the mechanisms to overcome these challenges, which are out of growers’ control. Thus, growers need to rely on good quality agricultural and infrastructure programs and policies.


Economic, financial and agricultural research is necessary, since studies on land use for second crops are crucial. In the central-western region in Brazil, only 45% of the soybean area is used for second-crop corn. Most of that area is not used in that period and it could be or must be used to increase food supply in Brazil and in the world.

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