Brazil may see a mass migration of crops and farm workers from huge swaths of currently tillable lands to more temperate zones as global warming takes hold, according to leading climate experts in the country.
Longtime Brazilian climate researcher Hilton Silveira Pinto points to the drought that’s cutting grain and coffee output this year as an indicator that rising global temperatures may already be impacting the country’s crops.
"This is a taste of what is to come in the future," said Pinto, a professor at the Center for Meteorological and Climate Research Applied to Agriculture at the University of Campinas.
A study co-authored by Pinto that looks at projected warming trends shows Brazil’s soybean production may drop by as much as 24 percent and wheat output as much as 41 percent by 2020 as climate change reduces areas where the crops can grow.
Because Brazil is increasingly helping to feed the world, the import of that isn’t just Brazil’s problem. The nation last year dethroned the U.S. as the world’s top soybean exporter -- it sold 41.9 million tons to Asia, Europe and the Middle East last season -- and has led the world in sugar and coffee production for more than a century. It also exports more beef and orange juice than any other nation on earth.
Agriculture accounts for 25 percent of Brazil’s gross domestic product and more than one third of its annual exports. With its ample water resources and year-round temperate climate, Brazil has also attracted billions of dollars in agribusiness investments by opening vast tracts of tropical hinterland to farming and applying state-of-the-art technology to expand yields across all manner of crops.
While the connection of warming to droughts and extreme weather is still being studied, there’s no doubt that warmer temperatures are affecting global crop output -- worldwide wheat yields are declining by about 2 percent a decade and those for maize by 1 percent, the United Nations said in a March 31 report.
Major grain producers in cooler climates such as Canada and Russia may fare better than Brazil as much of its tropical agriculture already operates at the upper limit of heat tolerance, said Eduardo Assad, a researcher at the government’s Embrapa agricultural technology agency who co-authored the study with Pinto.
In Brazil, heat and drought are already taking their toll. The worst dry spell in six decades is erasing an estimated 5 million metric tons from Brazil’s grain harvest this year, about the size of Egypt’s annual corn crop.