Postcard from Brazil: UBC PhD student travels to Southern Amazonia to find the water footprint of local farms

By Michael Lathuillière

Following its colonization of large areas of natural vegetation, Brazil is one of the largest soybean producers on the planet. Given the intense seasonal rains that Southern Amazonia receives between October and May, farmers can grow soybean without any irrigation; however, this may change given that climatic conditions and atmospheric feedback from deforestation could decrease regional rainfall.  

The Globalink Research Award helped me kick-start a state-of-the-art crop water monitoring initiative at the Capuaba soybean farm in Lucas do Rio Verde, Mato Grosso state. I am supervised by UBC-IRES’s Dr. Mark Johnson as well as Dr. Eduardo Couto of the Universidade Federal de Mato Grosso in Cuiabá, Mato Grosso’s capital city. The Award supported the installation and maintenance of a meteorological tower, which we equipped with nearly 20 sensors to help determine the crop water balance.

My goal is to quantify the amount of water needed for soybean production in the region. My initial estimate of this “water footprint” showed that 1,900 litres of water were required every year to grow one kilogram of soybean in Southern Amazonia. However, this estimate was based on a crop modeling exercise with assumptions that don’t reflect the realities of producing in the tropics. I hope that the variables measured by the meteorological tower will better inform these models.

A typical field day starts at 4:45 a.m. when my alarm rings just before my colleague, Dr. Higo José Dalmagro, picks me up for the four-hour journey to Capuaba Farm. The sun is already high in the sky by the time we reach the site to clean and troubleshoot sensors, often under 40 degree Celsius heat. We get help from the farm staff, with whom we compare notes about the soybean development cycle and general farming practices.

I am grateful to get a perspective that is simply not attainable through mathematical formulae and spreadsheets.

My research will contribute to Dr. Johnson’s project, Integrating land use planning and water governance in Amazonia: Towards improving freshwater security in the agricultural frontier of Mato Grosso,” supported by the Belmont Forum and the G8 Research Councils Freshwater Security Grant. Results from this research will help clarify crop water use in the Amazon River headwaters. It is critical for researchers like me to understand farm water management practices in the tropical agricultural context, given their potential impact on downstream water availability. 

Mitacs thanks the Government of Canada and the Government of British Columbia for their support of the Globalink Research Award program in this story. Across Canada, the Globalink program also receives support from Alberta Innovates, the Government of New Brunswick, the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, the Government of Nova Scotia, the Government of Ontario, the Government of Prince Edward Island, the Government of Quebec, the Government of Saskatchewan and Research Manitoba.

In addition, Mitacs is pleased to work with international partners to support this award, including Campus France and Inria, India’s Ministry of Human Resource Development, the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science, and Tunisia’s Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research and Mission Universitaire de Tunisie en Amerique du Nord.

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