Soybean planted area in Brazil is larger than Italy

MapBiomas survey shows that the area of annual crops tripled between 1985 and 2020

The growth of agriculture between 1985 and 2020 is impressive: the mapped areas of some annual crops, such as soy and corn, tripled; perennial crops, such as coffee and citrus, had a similar expansion (2.7 times); in the case of forestry, the growth was five times.  This is some of the data obtained by MapBiomas through the analysis of satellite images from 1985 to 2020. The survey was presented on October 20th by YouTube. It includes new land use categories: besides soy and sugar cane, data on some mapped coffee and citrus areas, data on central pivot irrigation and irrigated rice will be presented.  

The total mapped agricultural area in Brazil has increased from 19 million hectares in 1985 to 55 million hectares in 2020.  Of this total, 36 million are soybean.  Soy alone occupies 4.3% of the national territory - an area equivalent to the whole of the Republic of Congo and larger than countries like Italy, Vietnam or Malaysia. Half of this total is in the Cerrado, where it has advanced over 16.8 million hectares in the last 36 years. 

The total area occupied by agriculture is even larger. In addition to the areas mapped directly as agricultural crops, there is an undefined fraction of the areas mapped as an agricultural mosaic (45.3 Mha) that also include non-perennial agricultural crops as well as part of the areas of perennial crops such as coffee, cocoa and citrus that have not yet been mapped. The same goes for forestry which has an omission level of 30% that refers to areas that may still be classified as forest or agricultural mosaic.

In the Amazon, the growth of soybeans began in the early 2000s and totaled 5.2 million hectares, or 14% of the national total. There, the recent advance over native vegetation can be observed in the lavrado - an area with cerrado characteristics that exists within the biome in the state of Roraima. Another 26% of the country's soy area is in the Atlantic Forest, where soy expanded by 7.9 million hectares between 1985 and 2020.

The growth of the area occupied by agriculture can be observed in all Brazilian biomes, but more markedly in the Cerrado: the most recent data shows that almost half (42%) of Brazil's agriculture is in the Cerrado.  Between 1985 and 2020, the area of agriculture in the Cerrado grew by 464%.  In second place comes the Atlantic Forest, which represents 34% of the agricultural area, followed by the Amazon and Pampa, with 11% each. The Pampa is the biome with the largest portion of territory occupied by agriculture mapped (31%).

As the related studies show, the Cerrado, the biome with the largest growth in agriculture and the largest area dedicated to the activity, is also one of the most fragile to alterations in the rainfall regime caused by deforestation in the Amazon.  It is also one of the regions with the highest climate risk. The latest IPCC report foresees a 20% reduction in precipitation in Central Brazil and an increase in temperature of 4 ºC to 5 ºC - a scenario that will compromise the current agricultural activities in the region.

Within the Cerrado, the dynamics of land occupation varies between the states with longer consolidated areas and the Matopiba, with more recent occupation. On the border between the states of Maranhão, Tocantins, Piauí and Bahia, the advance of agriculture over native vegetation is more intense, between 2000 and 2020, considering 5-year intervals, 76% of the expansion of agriculture in the region took place over native vegetation; in the other states of the biome, this percentage is less than 10% considering the same period. 

"In general, what can be seen in all biomes is that there is no need to convert natural vegetation into arable areas because there is already a lot of open land with agricultural aptitude and the Cerrado is no exception," says Moisés Salgado, of the MapBiomas team responsible for the agriculture survey and director of technology at Agrosatélite. "With the exception of the Amazon and Atlantic Forest, the other biomes have few demarcated conservation units, which hinders the work of landscape recovery. This reinforces the need for conservation of the remaining native vegetation areas, especially the Cerrado, which has already lost half of its original coverage", he highlights.

The evolution of the mapped irrigated area shows a 293% growth, from 819 thousand hectares in 1985 to 3,217 thousand hectares in 2020.  The area irrigated by central pivots, which accounted for only 8.5% of the total irrigated area in 1985, is responsible for 45.7% in 2020. In this period, the country's water surface had a retraction of 3.1 million hectares.  Since the early 1990s, Brazil has lost 15% of its water surface.  The watersheds with the highest rate of water use by central pivot are Paracatu (MG), Alto São Francisco (BA) and Alto Paranapanema (SP), the three with shrinking water surface in the last three decades.

"Although irrigation is the alternative for the farmer when there is water deficiency, it is not authorized in cases of crisis, like the one the country is facing now," explains Moisés. "The tendency is for water to decrease in Brazil, so the more conservative use of water in agriculture is fundamental for the future success of the activity," he adds. 


Other crops

The MapBiomas survey shows that, in the case of sugarcane, the mapped area grew by 291% between 1985 and 2020, when this crop occupied 9 million hectares - the equivalent to a quarter of the area of soybeans.

The coffee areas were mapped in the states with the largest planted areas, such as Minas Gerais, Espírito Santo, São Paulo, Bahia, Paraná and Goiás. In total, the mapped area grew 43% in the last three decades, reaching 804,000 hectares in 2020. 

The citrus survey was made in the state of São Paulo and shows a total of 31 thousand hectares in 2020.

Forestry, which had a five times growth in mapped area, went from 1.4 million hectares in 1985 to 7.5 million hectares in 2020.  The states with the largest mapped forestry areas are Minas Gerais, Paraná and Santa Catarina. 

Watch the event with the data presentation: