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Global Meat Demand Plows up Brazil's 'Underground Forest'

For related articles and more information, please visit OCA's Environment and Climate Resource Center page and our CAFO's vs. Free Range page.

PALMAS, Brazil  -  South and east of Brazil's famous Amazon, the air becomes dryer and the humid rainforest gives way to emerald green patches of irrigated pasture carved from scrubby woods and native grasslands.

This is a different kind of forest, hidden in plain sight and far more threatened than the Amazon. Known as the Cerrado, it is the largest, most biologically diverse savannah region of South America, home to 5 percent of all life on the planet.

But industrial farming is fast swallowing this unique landscape. And its rapid transformation is creating a ticking carbon bomb that scientists warn could significantly affect the global carbon cycle if the current rate of destruction continues.

This enormous expanse in central Brazil was once as impenetrable as the deepest rainforest, so isolated that Portuguese settlers dubbed it Cerrado, or "closed." Today roads connect the Cerrado's southern boundary in the São Paulo and Mato Grosso do Sul states with its northern limits some 1,500 miles away near the Atlantic coast. Yet the Cerrado is still largely unknown, even in Brazil.

This is a vast mosaic of wide grassy plains, rivers flanked by slender palms and dense woodlands populated by a tangle of stunted-looking, thick-barked trees. It is the second largest biome in Brazil after the Amazon. The real "forest" here is underground, an enormous system of branches and roots buried deep to survive fire and search for water during long dry seasons.

Too poor for crops?

As recently as the 1950s, soil here was considered too poor to grow crops, so the region remained largely empty of development. In the 1960s, however, agronomists discovered that the Cerrado could be made remarkably productive by adding lime to reduce the soil's acidity. That changed everything. Aided by chemical fertilizers, the dry Cerrado savannah could suddenly support large-scale commercial crops like corn, sugar cane, cotton and, most of all, soy.

Soy. That miracle legume. The crop that, more than any other, is allowing China to feed hamburger, steak and bacon to its ballooning middle class and export everything from fish to cosmetics, high-end steel water bottles to cheap plastic trinkets.    
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