As society became aware that agricultural production, in its traditional form, may not be sustainable for the next decades, it has assumed commitments that resulted in new functions for the sector. In addition to producing human food and animal feed, agriculture also assumes the production of an important portion of raw material for the generation of bioenergy, whose demand must expand significantly in a short to medium term horizon.
The world population is expected to reach 9.1 billion people in 2050, requiring a considerable increase in agricultural and livestock production to provide enough food for the additional demand. The additional volume of food production that will be needed is estimated at one billion tons of cereals and 200 million tons of meat per year, which is equivalent to a 70% increase of what is currently produced [2,3].
Over the past decades, modern use of biomass has increased rapidly in many parts of the world, in line with the Kyoto targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Studies have shown that bioenergy – that is, energy obtained from non-fossil organic material of biological origin – if produced in a sustainable way, can dramatically reduce CO2 emissions. The increase in oil prices has also enhanced the interest in bioenergy. Currently, biomass represents just over 10% of the total energy supply (about 50EJ/ year), of which two thirds are used by developing countries for heating and cooking. By 2050, estimates of supply potential are still quite variable. If we consider, as an example, estimates that incorporate current expectations of technology, food demand and environmental goals, a total potential supply of 160 to 287EJ has been estimated, which is well above the current level .
In addition, agriculture plays a decisive role in the development of lower income countries, and in the current economy, a large part of these are heavily dependent on the sector. Industrial expansion, whether in developed, developing and less developed economies, is still favored by adequate provision of food and agricultural raw material, in order to reduce the nominal wage and labor cost for the industry and services sector, favoring employment and growth of the economy.
All these functions will have to be met with less availability of inputs such as rural labor, as well as limitations in the use of land and water. And, contrary to what happens in other productive sectors, the basic inputs for agriculture are difficult to replace and can be exhausted if they are not properly exploited.
This scenario indicates that there will be a need for a new technological revolution so that the increase of productivity allows to reach the production necessary to meet the demands outlined for the next decades. This “revolution” will be of a different from the previous ones, involving an effective contraction in the employed volumes of natural resources, which has strengthened the concept of Sustainability Intensification (SI), defined as a process involving greater production using fewer inputs, particularly land.
Currently, agriculture accounts for 26.5% of employment (ILOSTAT), 37.26% of land use (FAOSTAT), 70% of the use of extracted water (AQUASTAT) and up to 24% of CO2 emissions (IPCC).
The rural population has been reduced, both due to urban migration and by the aging of the population. By 2030, urban population is estimated to increase by 24.6% and people aged between 40 and 65 or more will represent about 40.1% of the global population, indicating a smaller contingent with potential to work in agriculture .
In a global context, the area of agriculture has been limited not only in its capacity to expand. As early as the beginning of the 2010 decade, FAO indicated that 90% of the growth in global agricultural production should result from increased productivity and intensification of cultivation, with the remainder being served by an increase in area. Almost all of this expansion, however, must occur in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa, estimated at a total of 120 million hectares. This total is expected to be partially offset by a reduction of around 50 million hectares in the developed countries, so that the possible net increase is estimated at about 70 million hectares. Between 2007 and 2017, there was a decrease in total cropland of 1.3%, largely as a result of urban degradation, pollution and expansion .
Production under sustainability intensification (SI) is not limited, however, to the access of inputs. Other factors, such as the observation of ethical aspects in livestock exploitation, conservation of biodiversity, reduction in emissions and promotion of social welfare for the individuals employed in the sector are also requirements of the process.
The transition from agricultural production to IS requires, therefore, not only the definition of new technologies to increase the productivity of inputs, but also the planning and administration of agro-industrial activities with more comprehensive and universal approaches, aiming at social transformations that bring improvements in the lives of people.
The challenge is big, and efforts will be intensive for such initiatives to be successful. In the context of policy formulation, while it is fundamental that values are associated for the new functions assumed by agriculture, little has been done in this direction. Through negotiations and goal definitions agriculture has been to greater challenges, however, the importance given to the sector by governments and policymakers does not follow the same logic. This is particularly important for developing countries and for Brazilian agriculture.
Brazil occupies a prominent position in the production and export of various commodities, such as soybean, sugar, coffee, orange, ethanol, as well as beef and chicken. Because of this – and also because it is one of the few countries in the world with the capacity to expand production, while maintaining biodiversity and native forests – Brazil is expected to contribute a significant fraction of the additional production of agro-food in future decades . Currently, the country has the potential to expand the area of arable land by 103.32 million hectares , and is considered the world's granary, since it concentrates the largest portion of the unused agricultural areas in the world.
A study conducted by NASA in collaboration with the US Geological Survey (USGS) has shown that Brazil protects and preserves native vegetation in more than 66% of its territory and grows crops in only 7.6% of the land. Other countries have a much higher percentage, such as Denmark, with 76.8%, ten times more than Brazil; Ireland, 74.7%; the Netherlands, 66.2%; the United Kingdom, 63.9%; and Germany, 56.9%. Most countries use between 20% and 30% of their total territory with agriculture.
Several techniques to avoid erosion, to reduce environmental externalities, with simultaneous increase of productivity, are already available to farmers, although they have not been widely adopted . To the extent that Brazilian producers adopt practices such as crop rotation, minimum cultivation, restoration of degraded pasture areas, and adaptation of agriculture-livestock-forest integration systems, they will be making an important contribution to the intensification of sustainability .
In spite of the collaboration that has been provided by the Brazilian agriculture and livestock sector for the new functions attributed to the sector at a global context, there are still few initiatives that systematically account for the advances and contributions provided in the context of the sustainability intensification. To ensure recognition of the new roles assumed, it is important to develop measures equivalent to those employed in other countries so that advances and contributions are adequately quantified and recognized. It is up to the country to be more involved in the development of SI measurement methods that are systematically updated and internationally recognized.