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Save the Cerrado
Our climate depends on it
The Cerrado savanna, which lies mostly in Brazil, is one of the world’s most biodiverse places and is critically important for protecting the global climate. And it is under threat.
This highly valuable landscape, which has never received the same attention as its more celebrated neighbor, the Amazon, is being destroyed at a frighteningly fast pace. Just 14 global agriculture companies have the power to save it by ending deforestation and conversion in their supply chains by 2025. If they won’t, this critical habitat, water source, and carbon sink may be lost forever—putting a livable climate and global food security in jeopardy.
We must open our eyes to what’s happening in the Cerrado. Read on to discover just what stands in the balance and what can be done about it.
The Cerrado plays a critical role in sequestering carbon by storing vast amounts of it in the soil, helping to buffer our planet against the climate crisis.
This region’s wild savanna is full of grasslands and small trees with deep root systems that lock up a significant amount of carbon. In fact, the Cerrado is sometimes referred to as an “upside-down forest” because almost 70% of its forest’s biomass is underground. This extensive soil and root system stores 35 tons of carbon per acre,1 providing a huge assist in keeping our climate stable.
This region is the world’s most biodiverse savanna. Its rolling grasslands and forests are habitat for an incredible number of species, including around 200 species of mammals, 800 species of birds, 180 species of reptiles, and 1,200 species of fish. Amid this stunning collection of wildlife can be found maned wolves, armadillos, and giant anteaters—and they are just three of the 60 at-risk animal species that live in the Cerrado, 12 of which are critically endangered. Of the Cerrado’s more than 11,000 plant species, nearly half are found nowhere else on Earth, and local communities rely on many of them for food, medicine, and handicrafts.
This area is also extremely important as a source of water. Of 12 major hydrological regions in Brazil, eight begin in the Cerrado, and they provide critical water resources to millions of people. Nine out of 10 Brazilians use electricity generated by water originating in the Cerrado savanna.
Many diverse Indigenous and local communities live in and rely on the Cerrado. The population today includes communities originally founded by Black enslaved people, in resistance to Brazil’s slavery regime (quilombolas), and Indigenous people who rely on long-standing small-scale farming practices. Along with relying on the land for their living and well-being, Indigenous communities have also been far superior caretakers of the land. Studies show that Indigenous lands in Brazil tend to have lower levels of deforestation than do conventional government-managed protected areas, suggesting just how closely linked and important Indigenous leadership is to conserving wildlife and plant life in the area.2
All these incredible benefits the Cerrado brings to our planet are at risk due to extensive deforestation and conversion that is destroying the region’s grasslands and forests and their carbon-storing root systems at an incredible rate. This unsustainable destruction is on the brink of creating irreversible negative impacts on the region and the world.
If destruction of the Cerrado is not stopped, Indigenous people will lose their homes. Freshwater resources will be degraded. Animals will be driven toward extinction. And the crucially important global commitment to cap global warming at 1.5ºC will become very difficult to attain. Read more about these threats below.
The World Food Programme estimates that over 800 million people lack enough food for themselves and their families, a number that has grown despite modern advances in food production and trade. But using land for farming and conserving nature’s inherent ability to limit climate change do not have to come at the expense of one another. Humans can feed the world without destroying the very land that supports a livable planet.
One recent analysis found that the projected growth of demand for both soy and beef can be met without further land conversion. Instead, land already converted to pastures can double as cropland, and the number of livestock per acre on lands already cleared for raising cattle can increase.
Unsustainable agricultural expansion is responsible for almost 90% of global deforestation and habitat conversion,3 driving significant biodiversity loss. Three commodities in particular—beef, soy, and palm oil—are responsible for the majority of tropical deforestation.
This situation can be seen clearly in Brazil, where, since the 1950s, unsustainable agricultural commodity production has driven the loss of about half of the Cerrado’s native vegetation.4 Today, habitat conversion in the region—including widespread fires deliberately set by humans to create more land for industrial farming—has reached its highest level since 2015.
The rapid expansion of soy production is a particular threat. The Cerrado accounts for roughly half of Brazil’s soy production, and it is already experiencing the most aggressive and intense soy expansion in the world. Importantly, as soy production expands, the conversion of the Cerrado isn’t just continuing—it’s accelerating. In 2021, the region saw an 8% increase in deforestation and conversion compared to the previous year.
As these landscapes are destroyed, we lose an irreplaceable biome, and the world’s collective ability to conserve a livable planet for people and wildlife grows far more difficult.
By 2030, the Cerrado is projected to lose tens of millions of additional acres of native vegetation if this unchecked agricultural expansion continues.5 And with that loss, the world will lose a pivotal tool for tackling the climate crisis.
The kind of deforestation and conversion of native vegetation to industrial farmland that’s happening in the Cerrado drives global climate change because it releases carbon into the atmosphere and diminishes the land’s ability to reabsorb it. Converting habitat in the Cerrado for agricultural production generates 230 million metric tons of carbon per year, equivalent to the annual emissions of 50 million cars.6
If destruction of the Cerrado and other valuable carbon sinks does not stop by 2025, so much carbon will be released into the atmosphere that it will be challenging for the world to reach its global climate change goals. On top of that, it will be virtually impossible for many food companies that use commodities from this region to achieve their own climate goals set through the Science-Based Targets initiative, a coalition that helps companies set emission reduction targets in line with climate science. If these things happen, we increase the risk of hitting dangerous tipping points for our climate, bringing about even more extreme weather, such as storms, flooding, heat waves, and drought, and threatening our economic prosperity.
Fourteen large agricultural companies that underpin our connected global food system have a unique ability to change the trajectory of the Cerrado and, as a result, help meet our global climate targets.
Why? Because the global food system accounts for over 30% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, with much of these emissions caused by deforestation and conversion to accommodate global reliance on cheap commodities like soy.
The agricultural traders buy and sell vast quantities of soy and other raw commodities, which are ultimately sold to food companies, restaurant chains, and retailers, where they turn up in final products that are ubiquitous in our everyday lives. More than a third of the world’s soy—which is converted to feed for livestock and poultry, cooking oil, and even fuel for cars—is produced in the Cerrado and other parts of Brazil.
In global supply chains, they play a pivotal role in influencing how producers use land to grow commodities.
These 14 agricultural companies can stop the Cerrado from disappearing, help the global community reach its 1.5ºC climate goal, and limit catastrophic impacts to the climate, nature, and biodiversity.
At the 2021 UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, this small but powerful group of agricultural traders all agreed to take sector-wide action to do just that. In their words, they committed to delivering a “shared roadmap for enhanced supply chain action consistent with a 1.5 degrees Celsius pathway” by COP27.
Unfortunately, the roadmap unveiled at COP27 falls woefully short of their promise and leaves a 1.5 degrees Celsius future even further out of reach.
The roadmap agreed to by the traders so narrowly defines what types of places will be protected that 74 percent of the Cerrado is excluded and therefore vulnerable to irreversible destruction. In addition, land conversion must be addressed in tandem with deforestation in order to have a significant impact on the climate crisis.
Beyond using definitions inclusive of our most vulnerable landscapes, a successful roadmap must stop habitat destruction on a timeline fast enough to have the right impact. If the traders do not make it known they will not accept soy from newly cleared land, effective immediately, then they will only encourage more destruction as fast as possible until their signaled deadline.
The current roadmap also means that the customers of these agricultural companies—manufacturers and brands who are trying to meet their own climate supply chain targets—would be unable to do so, creating a domino effect that would harm efforts worldwide to secure a livable planet.
There are ways to create an effective roadmap with sustainable solutions, allowing for agricultural production that can grow enough to feed the world without sacrificing our climate. Soy production on already degraded land is one such option, allowing this crucial landscape to remain intact while still feeding the planet.
Strengthening global food security, limiting climate change, and halting nature loss are not opposing concepts. These challenges can and must be faced together. But we can only do that if leading companies that trade and sell food commodities make meaningful commitments and take responsibility for their role in solving climate change and nature loss—both of which threaten to upend the food systems upon which we all depend.
1. Dionizio EA, Pimenta FM, Lima LB, Costa MH (2020) Carbon stocks and dynamics of different land uses on the Cerrado agricultural frontier. PLoS ONE 15(11): e0241637. https://doi. org/10.1371/journal.pone.0241637
2. Climate and Land Use Alliance. “Challenges and Opportunities for Conservation, Agricultural Production, and Social Inclusion in the Cerrado Biome.” Technical Annex: Traditional People and Communities, Biodiversity, Water, and Climate Change, Aug. 2016.
3. FAO. 2020. Global Forest Resources Assessment 2020: Main Report. Rome.
4. Strassburg, B., Brooks, T., Feltran-Barbieri, R. et al. Moment of truth for the Cerrado hotspot. Nat Ecol Evol 1, 0099 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41559-017-0099
5. Strassburg, B., Brooks, T., Feltran-Barbieri, R. et al. Moment of truth for the Cerrado hotspot: Supplement. Nat Ecol Evol 1, 0099 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41559-017-0099
6. Third National Communication of Brazil to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change – Volume III/ Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation. Brasília: Ministério da Ciência, Tecnologia e Inovação, 2016.
7. Jackson, R. B., et al. "A Global Budget for Fine Root Biomass, Surface Area, and Nutrient Contents." PNAS, July 1997.