Water Footprint in Brazil

by Water To Food Team

While agriculture remains the most significant driver of global deforestation, there is an urgent need to promote more positive interactions between agriculture and forestry to build sustainable agricultural systems and improve food security.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, as well as the Paris Agreement on climate change, recognises that we can no longer look at food security and the management of natural resources separately

José Graziano da Silva, FAO Director-General

What are the top products of the Brazilian agriculture?

  1. Coffee Brazil is the first exporter in the World
  2. Soybeans Brazil is the second producer in the World, after the US.
  3. Wheat It is mostly cultivated in the Southern region
  4. Rice, maize, sugar cane, cocoa

Unsustainable agricultural activities, particularly soy production and cattle ranching, pose a major threat to ecosystems and biodiversity.

These activities are responsible for the deforestation of both of the Amazon forest and the Cerrado tropical savanna. Explore how agriculture is connected to deforestation and water resources exploitation.

Has soybean production increased in the past decade? What's the role of diet habits?

Soybeans production is one of the drivers of deforestation, its production is growing exponentially and it is going to increase even more. For instance, China has increased its imports of soybean from Brazil due to the US duties.

EU imported nearly 13 million tons of soybean from Brazil in 2017. The largest European importer is the Netherlands, which then re-export to other EU countries (Rotterdam is the biggest and most important port in Europe: it works as a re-locator point: products arrive from all over the world and then are spread across EU). Spain and France are also large importers of the Brazilian soybean.

Find out more on TRASE

Top importers:

  1. China
  2. Thailand
  3. Netherlands
  4. Spain
  5. France

How big is meat production? Which foreign countries rely most on this production?

The growth of cattle meat production has been nearly exponential over the past decades: from a little bit more than 1 million ton per year in 1961 to almost 10 million from 2013 to 2016. Some facts:

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Top importers:

  1. China
  2. Egypt
  3. Russia
  4. Iran
  5. Argentina

Now let's compare soybeans and meat production to "traditional crops" production

Find out more on FAOSTAT

The trends of coffee and wheat production are remarkably different from those of cattle meat and soybeans.

In particular, coffee is a typical crop of Brazil, where it arrived there at the end of XVIII century. Arabica is the quality produced in the country and exported all over the world, especially in Europe and US. In the past coffee plantations were places of stressful working conditions and workers (and slaves) exploitation. Due to overproduction and consequent price decreasing, a number of coffee bags were even burned to let prices rise again. Nowadays prices are controlled by avoiding overproduction, according to market demand. Many actions have been made to make work  in the plantations and coffee trades fair, for the majority by the hand of coffee processing companies.

What crop uses most water?

Figures above show the total water footprint of production in Brazil. These values [m3] have been obtained as the product between the unit Water Footprint [m3/ton] and production [ton]. Soybean and cattle meat WFs have importantly increased over the past decades following production trends. Brazil increased its exports toward Europe and Eastern Asia where also changing diet habits played a significant role. Conversely, wheat and coffee have followed different dynamics in time. Coffee WF has decreased since the Sixties due to decreasing harvested area reaching around 25 km3 of water per year. Coffee and soybean show an opposite dynamic, indeed soybean's harvested areas have exploded.

What's the most water-efficient product?

  1. Wheat uWF Brazil: 1190 liter/kg — world average: 1600 liter/kg
  2. Soybeans uWF Brazil: 1830 liter/kg — world average: 2107 liter/kg
  3. Coffee uWF Brazil: 7280 liter/kg — world average: 18900 liter/kg
  4. Cattle Meat uWF Brazil: 13800 liter/kg — world average: 15400 liter/kg

The unit Water Footprints of Brazil are lower than the World average for all these main products, making Brazil a water-efficient country. However, its large production of soybean and cattle impacts water resources, such as in the Cerrado region as we tell in the next section.

Among these crops, coffee production in Brazil allows the largest water saving per unit production compared to other coffee production in the World. To find out more about wheat, soybean, and cattle meat WF visit the Play with Data section of the website.

Cerrado overexploitation due to soybeans crops

The production of soy in Brazil damaged in last decades the region of Cerrado and affected its water resources. This region is the Tropical Savanna of Brazil. Covering 2 million km2, or 21% of the country’s territory, the Cerrado is the second largest vegetation type in Brazil after the Amazon forest. The area is equivalent to the size of England, France, Germany, Italy and Spain combined. It’s one of the richest ecosystem hosting important biodiversity; however, despite its environmental importance, it is one of the least protected regions in Brazil: only 20% of the Cerrado’s original vegetation remained intact; less than 3% of the area is currently protected by law.

Cerrado is also where the three major water resources of Brazil and of the entire South America begin: Rio Amazonas, Rio Paraná-Paraguay, Rio São Francisco. These resources are threatened  by the uncontrolled expansion of industrial agriculture. The capital of the country, Brasilia, in the earth of Cerrado and it has to face drought and water rationing very often. The situation is even worse in the villages around the areas where soy production is concentrated.

Deforestation and  water exploitation for agriculture are considered responsible for the extinction of some minor rivers and for the decrease in the flow of the major rivers, such as Rio Sao Francisco.