The Safrinha subpoena, or, do they that soy the wind ripen the whirlwind?

August 12, 2019 |

“They will sow wheat but reap thorns; they will wear themselves out but gain nothing.” — Jeremiah 12:13

If you want to see climate change, you can go north until you see it, or you can go south until you smell it. As in, welcome to the tropics, dude, we stink!

Today we’re going to relate a detective story which begins with an unexplained and foul stink, and branches off into climate, trade, the eradication of poverty, crop rotation, the politics of the Amazon, the flow vectors of tropical seas, seafloor convection, the future of beach tourism, what gets fertilized and when in soy corn crop rotations, and dietary shift. Just to name a few threads of the conversation. They that soy the wind shall ripen the whirlwind, as they said in the Bible, not exactly.

Our starting point is sargassum, a family of macroalgae that have been piling up on American, African, Mexican and Caribbean shorelines in huge quantities in recent years — as much as 20 million tons a year, which is like the weight of all the cars in California. It’s golden, it drifts, it goeth forth and multiplies. These algae want to rock ‘n roll all night and party every day.

When it finds shore, it piles up, rots, and releases foul-smelling hydrogen sulfide gas (yep, rotten egg smell), and it’s been rotting so much and so fast that it has become a financial and quality of life downer for tourist havens and seaside communities. And it’s been getting worse.

As The New Republic put it, with stoic editorial restraint, “Humans Have Created a New Natural Disaster”.

The hunt for the villains

As you might expect, there’s been a hunt ongoing for the root cause, and recently a new article in Science has been attracting mainstream media attention and as the BBC put it, deforestation and fertilizer use are among the factors thought to be driving the growth.”

Specifically, Amazonian deforestation, and if you follow the story to here, you’ll find that “Nutrient levels in the Amazon basin are increasing, driven mainly by nitrogen and phosphorous from fertilizers used in areas of rainforest recently converted to farmland.”

The Science researchers found that:

The expansion of the sargassum coincides with two key events in the spring and summer. In the Amazon’s rain forest, the continued deforestation by farmers has led to an increase in the amount of nutrient pollution flowing out to sea from the Amazon River. Meanwhile a regular upwelling current from the ocean’s depths pushes nutrients that had been on the bottom up to the surface to further fuel the seaweed’s growth.

So, there’s chapter one of our story, round up the deforesters and Brazil’s northern-based farmer-oligarchs, they’re to blame for the stink and all these troubles. It’s the bioeconomy to blame! So, gentle reader, go shoot yourself.

(Pause, to consider taking personal blame for the world’s troubles, and offering atonement through self-mutilation.)

Still with me?

Before we try the “up against the wall!” approach to climate justice, let’s try some problems with the mainstream narrative, in the court of public opinion, that is to say, here in Digestville County Courthouse.

The 6 Unexplainables of the Round Up the Usual Suspects approach

For there are a couple of mysteries to unravel. Namely:

1. The suddenness problem. The sargassum bloomed explosively since 2011, not before, yet deforestation is a gradual rather than a one-year phenomenon. And, we might add, in the years around 2007-10, Amazonian deforestation was in sharp retreat as government stepped in to curtail it. It’s worth adding that during the years 2006-2009 the Brazilian soy acreage dropped by hundreds of thousands of hectares. Harvests were plunging, not spiking.

2. The land use problem. There’s precious little forest that is ever converted directly to crop production, usually it is converted to pastureland, which is not given large doses of fertilizers in the north of Brazil. About 1% of deforested Amazonian land is converted straight over to cropland. And as we noted above, that process has been happening over many years, and there’s nothing around 2011 that represents a spike in land-use change that we’ve read of.

3. The nitrogen problem. The state of Mato Grosso in Brazil has seen a lot of land conversion over the years, and soybean acreage has expanded dramatically, but macroalgae and other critters bloom when there are nitrate run-offs, and no one applies nitrogen to soybeans; soybeans fix nitrogen from the air.

6. The time problem. The sargassum is blooming in the northern hemisphere spring and summer, as noted above, but soybean planting in Mato Grosso usually starts in September — that’s a long gap of 7-8 months between a fertilizer application and run-off into the rivers.

5. The current problem. Items of any sort drifting out of the Amazon River don’t usually end up on the beaches of Florida and Mexico, anyway. Even if you were to simply to toss a message in a bottle at the mouth of the Amazon, it would be most likely to end up drifting into the mid-Atlantic Sargasso Sea where it would be trapped for all time in the gyres that power the mid Atlantic currents. So, you’d need a current shift, not just a crop shift.

6. The Amazon problem. There’s a difference between what most people would regard as the Amazonian rainforest and the Amazon River watershed. The state of Mato Grosso, BTW FYI ICYMI and just sayin’, has four different river systems and watersheds, and most of the cropland is in the south of the state in the Parana or Tocantins watersheds. An algae bloom associated with nitrogen run-off that shows up seven months after a nitrogen application would more likely show up in Buenos Aires or Guyana, as opposed to the mouth of the Amazon. I’ve written a big stack of Digest columns while staring out across the Rio de la Plata towards Uruguay — che, no hay algae blooms aqui, as I think someone told me there. But maybe not.

So, how do we resolve our mystery? Where’s our smoking gun, that pops up explosively around 2010, and is deeply associated with nitrates?

Safrinha, and a well-intentioned shift in ag policy

You may well find that the answer lies not in deforestation but a halt in deforestation and a shift in Brazilian agricultural policy to emphasize land use intensification. You might find that the dates fit pretty well — the upswell of protest over deforestation hit epic levels around 2008-09.

And you might have not heard much about Safrinha, but you are about to.

That’s a second harvest. It’s usually around February in Mato Grosso state, it’s been encouraged in order to increase incomes for farmers without more land conversion. What have they been planting? In the north of Mato Grosso, it’s been corn. And lately, cotton.

As Ocj.com reports:

Over the past two years, cotton planting has increased by nearly one-third for the safrinha (second crop) in Mato Grosso. The Institute for Mato Grosso Economics of Agriculture (IMEA) forecasts Mato Grosso farmers will plant 1.1 million hectares (2.71 million acres) of cotton this spring. The Brazilian Association of Cotton Producers (Abrapa) forecast cotton acreage to grow to 1.4 million hectares (3.46 million acres). Mato Grosso accounts for about 88% of Brazil’s cotton production.

As Soybean and Corn Advisor reported:

Virtually all of the corn produced in Mato Grosso is safrinha production planted after the first crop of soybeans is harvested. The trend over the past decade is for farmers in the state to plant more early maturing soybeans in order to allow for more time to plant a second crop of corn or in some cases, a second crop of cotton. Harvesting of the 2018/19 safrinha corn crop in Mato Grosso should start toward the end of May and conclude sometime in July.

Feedstuffs reported in 2013:

USDA noted that second-crop planted area has more than doubled in size since 2008-09….An extended rainy season and above-average precipitation in Mato Grosso contributed to a bumper second crop in both cases.

Farmtario.com reports:

“Fifteen years ago, most corn was summer corn planted in October and harvested in January,” explained KWS corn breeder Luiz Pires during a visit to the company’s Cambé research station in Paranà. “Now, it is soy planted first, and then corn that is harvested in July and August.” More than 70 per cent of Brazil’s corn is now safrinha and an extra 200,000 hectares of corn are expected over the next five years, Pires said. That’s because cattle farmers are starting to rotate commodity crops through their degraded pastures as a way of boosting soil health, fertility and water-holding capacity.

The Big Shift to Corn

Now, why could that relate back to algae blooms? Again, leaning on Soybean and Corn Advisor:

The safrinha corn crop now represents more than 70% of Brazil’s total corn production and it is the safrinha crop that provides the vast majority of Brazil’s corn exports. The full-season corn crop is primarily planted in southern Brazil and it goes to the domestic livestock industry.

Corn needs nitrogen, that leads to nitrates, some of that might leach into the Amazonian system, where a sargassum nursery has developed. And note those above average precipitations and extended rainy seasons, that drives up the leaching effect.

Climate change, experts believe, may well have produced the other impact.

As our friends at The New Republic reported:

Lew Gramer, a marine scientist at the University of Miami, has also described a possible “correlation” between climate change and Sargassum’s spread due to changes in ocean circulation. “An unusual pattern of winds and ocean-surface circulation over the Sargasso Sea in late 2009 and early 2010 preceded the first mass beachings,” he said. “And this pattern actually coincided with an anomaly in a sea-level air pressure index that is also studied by climate scientists, the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO).” Some researchers have linked changes in the NAO to global warming.

So, there you have it. A remarkable combination of climate change (the shift in the currents) and a well-intentioned response to climate change (the shift in Brazilian agricultural policy). We might add that a lot of that corn and soy is headed for China, where a dietary shift towards more meat has been shifting global demand for livestock feed.

Three shifts — one dietary, one policy, one climate. That may well be what’s been driving the stinky sargassum all over the oceans and fouling the tourist trade.

What can we do?

A couple of things come to mind.

1. Hope that Pivot Bio’s technology works out. Here’s a company that aims to bring nitrogen fixation to corn, reducing the need for nitrate applications.

2. Work on climate change, so the currents stop oscillating in new ways that cause unintended consequences.

3. Eat your veggies. You’ll feel better, and the less we’ll need to plant more soybeans and corn for livestock feed.

4. Brazil might usefully encourage less corn production near the Amazon, and more towards the south.

4. Develop mid-value applications using sargassum as a feedstock. High-value apps will likely not absorb more than a fraction of the 20 million tons of the stuff; low-value applications will likely not have the economics that support feedstock which is thinly distributed along tourist beaches with narrow roads and no industrial zones nearby for refining.

The Bottom Line

It’s somewhat ironic that a well-intentioned response to deforestation and a desire to increase incomes in the developing world may be at the root of this ecological and fiscal stink-up. A clean-up is needed, but “A New Natural Disaster” is putting it hard, sorry New Republic. It’s a part of the bigger problem, a symptom of the times, a piece of the Continent, a part of the Main, as John Donne phrased it, though he may not have been writing explicitly about algae at the time, if I was forced to guess.

It’s not cotton, it’s not corn, it’s not even the inability to foresee the macro consequences of local actions. It’s about developing technology to use waste residues as a natural part of developing applications that result in waste residues. It’s a habit of mind that needs some reinforcement, really — habits drive actions, and actions change the world.

We always say around here that bioeconomy does not begin with crops and land but with waste — it may spread to land and crops if the conditions are right and the stakeholder benefits are broadly and fairly shared. Waste along the beaches of the United States, Mexico and the Caribbean Islands is a fair starting point for innovation.

We don’t have a pollution problem; we have an innovation problem that is leaving a potentially valuable commodity by the side of the road to rot. Let’s use it, that’s bioeconomy. Let’s innovate, that’s the bioeconomy spirit.

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