Trade in Agricultural Commodities in Brazil: an interview with Susan Oliveira

The Trade, Development and the Environment Hub, led by the UN Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC), is bringing together organisations from different countries, including Brazil, to help make trade sustainable for people and the planet.  

Together, these partners from industry, trade agencies, research, governments and civil society are studying all stages of various supply chains, revealing damaging links and potential ways to make lasting change.  

How can agricultural trade impact nature and people in Brazil? And what can be done about its effects? We interviewed the Trade-Hub post-doc researcher and professor at University of Brasília Susan Oliveira, who has been dedicating her time to studying the impacts, risks, and benefits associated with trade in agricultural commodities in Brazil, particularly those linked to biodiversity conservation.  

What is happening in the Brazilian agricultural commodity trade scenario?

Can we say that soybean, beef, and palm oil are all produced more sustainably than in the past? 

Brazil – a key player in global food security – is the largest soybean and beef exporter in the world. Technological innovations have fostered productivity gains and allowed for the establishment of mechanisms to closely monitor production sustainability. Nevertheless, deforestation for cropland expansion, the intensive use of agrochemicals and other practices that adversely impact the environment are still a challenge for the country. Important strides are yet to be taken towards Brazil’s transition to a more sustainable agriculture, aligned to improved land use planning and management; and prioritisation of areas for conservation and restoration.

Can the production of these commodities be related more to biodiversity loss or gains? What is the context today? 

Production of globally traded commodities is one of the primary causes of deforestation, natural vegetation conversion, habitat and biodiversity losses. In Brazil, not only the Amazon forest is at risk – the species’ rich Cerrado (a savanna biome) has been suffering severe impacts from large-scale soy bean cultivation and cattle rearing. Although there is increased awareness regarding the linkages between agricultural and livestock production and consumption, international trade and biodiversity loss, concerted public and private efforts are still necessary to fully address the adverse impacts of unsustainable food systems. The complexity of global supply chains and the inherent difficulties to measure biodiversity value and impacts within supply chains are some of the challenges to make these linkages even more explicit and find applicable solutions.

How are trade rules and legislations improving to increase sustainability in the sector? 

At the multilateral level, there is a renewed momentum towards bridging the gap between the trade and environment worlds. “Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use” and the “Forest, Agriculture and Trade Dialogue” (FACT), which resulted from the UNFCCC COP26 in 2021, are good examples and provide a roadmap for action. The Trade and Environmental Sustainability Structured Discussions (TESSD), a member-led initiative at the World Trade Organization (WTO), also provides a new venue for discussions, in addition to the WTO Committee on Trade and Environment. However, multilateral trade rules still do not address key sustainability issues, such as deforestation. This is why the United Kingdom; the European Union, and other countries are currently seeking to adopt deforestation-free supply chain regulations.  Furthermore, there is a strong call for strengthening sustainability provisions in free trade agreements (FTAs) and improving impact assessment mechanisms.

What can be done to make agricultural trade more sustainable? What are the tools available and why should they be used? 

Policy coherence, convergence and increased synergies between consumers, producers and investors are key to improve agricultural trade’s sustainability.  Although there are many public, private and hybrid tools available – such as regulations, voluntary sustainability standards and certifications, company pledges, national commitments in multilateral environmental agreements, among others – innovative multilevel governance frameworks are required to improve coordination, avoid duplication of efforts and unnecessary transaction costs.

If no action is taken to reduce the risks and impacts of agricultural commodities, what consequences will we be facing? 

Non-sustainable farming practices lead to land degradation, biodiversity loss, water pollution and scarcity, and adverse impacts on human health. In addition, it increases climate change and poses systemic risks to agriculture’s productivity.

What are the social impacts of unsustainable agriculture and who is affected the most? 

The expansion of the agricultural frontier for large-scale monoculture plantations without respect for the environment and natural resources has generated adverse social impacts. Small family farmers, indigenous people and traditional communities are the most vulnerable, suffering the consequences of land grabbing, illegal deforestation and the indiscriminate use of agrochemicals. Poverty, food and water insecurity, migration to urban areas have been driven by unsustainable commodities production. This illustrates the need to transition to more sustainable food systems, which are socially, economically and ecologically balanced.

If you want to know more about Susan Oliveira’s work in the Trade-Hub project, please go to the website of our partner institution, IIS-Rio, which has carried out several relevant studies to understand trade and sustainability in Brazil. 

In the coming months, we will be talking with researchers from different areas of the trade to understand the scenarios, challenges, and progress made to achieve sustainability. Stay tuned! 

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