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UMD Research Reveals Massive Cropland Expansion in Brazil

December 18, 2018
Contacts: 

Sara Gavin, 301-405-1733

soybean crops in brazilCOLLEGE PARK, Md.— Brazil, one of the world’s leading producers of commodities like soybean, corn, sugar cane and cotton, now has almost twice as much land dedicated to growing crops than it did in 2000, new research from the University of Maryland Department of Geographical Sciences finds. 

Using detailed satellite data, researchers analyzed cropland area in Brazil between 2000 and 2014. They discovered about 80 percent of the cropland expansion in the country was due to conversion of pasture and 20 percent from conversion of natural vegetation. Their findings were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) December 17.  

“Brazil was already one of the world’s top producers of commodity crops in the year 2000, when our study began, so it was striking to see the extent of cropland expansion that has occurred since then,” said Viviana Zalles, a doctoral candidate in geographical sciences and lead author on the study in PNAS. “Brazil is a country with the potential to cultivate an area much larger than the United States’ Corn Belt and, therefore, our findings have implications for global supply chains.”

The research project was conducted by the Global Land Analysis and Discovery (GLAD) team in the Department of Geographical Sciences at UMD. The GLAD lab is a world leader in mapping large-scale land cover change and monitoring these changes using remote sensing data. The research team hopes their latest findings in Brazil will inform further studies on the causes and effects of cropland expansion, in order to help policymakers and stakeholders implement sustainable land management practices.

“Whenever you have such a significant shift in land use over a relatively short period of time, there will inevitably be environmental and socioeconomic challenges, such as biodiversity loss, increased greenhouse gas emissions, impacts to human health and national economies,” said Professor Matthew Hansen, co-director of GLAD. “By monitoring these types of dynamic changes, we hope to help mitigate or even prevent the negative repercussions.” 

The GLAD team is now working on mapping cropland in all of South America dating back to 1985 to provide a broader understanding of land use changes on the continent. 

The study published in PNAS was funded by the Gordon and Betty More Foundation (Grant #5131) and the NASA Land Cover and Land Use Change Program (Grants NNX15AK65G and NNX12AC78G).