What’s Happening to the Cerrado: the Detrimental Effects of Industrialized Agriculture

By Peyton Stuart

“Nobody in the rest of the world knows about the Cerrado, and if they do know about it, they say 'thank God it's not the Amazon.'”

  Donald Sawyer, founder of the Institute of Society, People and Nature

To the South of the Amazon Basin lies the Cerrado, a massive, yet relatively unpublicized savannah. As the largest savannah of South America, the Cerrado is home to five percent of all life on the planet and is being severely damaged by industrialized agricultural practices (Spanne, 2014). The almost impenetrable expanse of thick woodlands and grassy plains earned its name from the Portuguese word “cerrado” or “closed” because of the settler’s inability to cultivate the land (Spanne, 2014). In fact, up until the 1960’s when farming corporations began adding lime to reduce soil acidity, the land was rather infertile. However, after realizing its potential for soy production, commercial crops began to take over the area. Today, the Cerrado is used for massive monoculture efforts that produce two-thirds of Brazil’s soy (note that Brazil is the world’s largest exporter of soy) (Spanne, 2014). Since the 1960’s, over half of the Cerrado has been transformed into soybean plantations, cattle ranches, and farm havens for industrial agriculture to flourish (Apparicio, 2018).

In the face of an exponentially growing global population and a warming climate, food resources are becoming scarce. The Brazilian government sees the transformation of the Cerrado as beneficial. Not only is the soy industry vital for food providers worldwide (specifically meat industries), but, in 2017, soy helped stabilize the Brazilian economy by growing its agriculture sector thirteen percent (Spring, 2018). For reference, “exports of soybean from Brazil amounted to approximately 28.6 billion U.S. dollars in 2020, an increase of 9.5 percent in comparison to the previous year” (Statista & Mendoza, 2021). Moreover, moving industries into the Cerrado helps reduce destruction of the Amazon Rainforest, Brazil’s most famous ecological gem. With all these benefits that come from the soy industry, why should we care so much about this extensive savannah?

The biggest concerns are the effects of industrialized agriculture as they pertain to the destruction of the Cerrado. Although agriculture has the potential to reap many ecological as well as economic benefits, this is not the case in central Brazil. Monoculture, massive clear cutting and burning, and destruction of nutrients due to soil upturn are unsustainable and detrimental to human and animal life in the region. Also known as the “upside-down forest”, up to 70% of all of the plants in the Cerrado have roots that reach 30 feet below the Earth’s surface (Spanne, 2014). During the process of transforming these grasslands into farmlands, massive carbon bombs are released into the atmosphere; “Conversion of Cerrado to grassland pumped more than 275 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year between 2002 and 2008” (Spanne, 2014). This amount of carbon dioxide liberation contributes to increasing carbon emissions in the atmosphere causing climate change. Unregulated use of this land for soy production has led to the Cerrado contributing “200 times more total greenhouse gas emissions than soy coming from other parts of the country” (Arsenault 2020). Even for the soil itself, repeated mass production of one crop (monoculture) can quickly deplete the nutrients and leave the soil dead and unusable. Looking ahead, this loss of nutrients ultimately results in a huge decrease in biodiversity. Huge clear cutting and burning efforts are not sustainable for maintaining healthy ecosystems or fertile soil. If farmers want to continue to use the Cerrado for agriculture, the current techniques need to be reevaluated. 

But what does sustainable agriculture look like?

Looking back at the millennia of agricultural practices from Indigenous and pre-industrial farmers in the region, there are plenty of techniques that can be adopted today. Small and controlled burning can actually have many benefits to the local ecosystem. Secondary succession, or the return of life after a habitat has been damaged, allows for organic plant material to replenish soil nutrients through decomposition. This “natural reset” can help increase soil fertility and crop production in the long run. When corporations demonstrate massive burning efforts, however, this can be detrimental for the environment since so much earth is destroyed for easy land conversion. Further, incrementally shifting the plots used for cultivation rather than using all the land at once allows for the replenishment of nutrients in the soil over time. Because of economic benefits, however, many incentives are offered to continue unsustainable use of the Cerrado. Compared to efforts to save the Amazon, less laws exist that protect the Cerrado. For example, recent legislation dictates that “farmers are required by law to preserve 80 percent of native vegetation on their plots” in the Amazon (Spring 2018). In the Cerrado, however, the rules are not as strict; “Cerrado farmers are required to preserve as little as 20 percent of the natural cover” (Spring 2018). Annually, the lack of conservation efforts lead to over 50% more land in the Cerrado being destroyed compared to the Amazon. Compared to overall size, the rate of destruction is about 4 times higher in the Cerrado. Despite this, “Brazilian soybean production for the 2020-21 crop year (September-August) is estimated to hit an all-time high on higher acreage and productivity” (Anand 2020). Increased production will only increase revenue from the soybean industry, driving companies to continue their practices. However, continuing current unsustainable agricultural practices in the Cerrado will lead to many negative and harmful outcomes for the planet and for all.

Recognizing the importance of the Cerrado can help us mitigate effects of climate change. To scientists and scholars, reducing soy production in this area is critical since animal feed is responsible for eighty percent of soy usage (Spanne, 2014). Although the world is getting hungrier and technology is advancing, it is important to consider the true costs of production. Protection of the Cerrado, “is, for now, a question of political choice. But the science suggests that choice may not be on offer for very much longer” (Gatehouse 2020). Looking forward, it is important to look at what is being sacrificed in order to sustain industrialized agriculture.

Peyton Stuart (he/him/his) is a Junior at the University of Pittsburgh. Originally from York, Pennsylvania, Peyton is majoring in the Natural Sciences, as well as minoring in Hispanic Language and Culture and Secondary Education. He is also pursuing a Latin American Studies Certificate. He loves travelling, learning more about the world, and researching special needs. In his free time, Peyton enjoys eating good food, drinking good wine, thinking about the Universe, and listening to Kanye West.


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