Agtech crop aims to overthrow Brazil’s image as an ecological villain

After the Brazilian government posted a photo online of a rifle-wielding farmer dressed in hunting gear to celebrate World Agriculture Day earlier this year, the backlash was swift.

“Absurd. It does not represent Brazilian farmers. It is a shame [us]”said Marcello Brito, president of the Brazilian Agri-Food Association, criticizing what he saw as the government’s archaic attitude towards agriculture.

One of the industry’s most prominent voices, his point of view is shared by many farmers in Brazil – the world’s largest producer of a range of food products, including coffee, sugar, soybeans and beef. – who believe that technological advancements and sustainability have been overshadowed by the government’s poor environmental credentials.

Since Jair Bolsonaro came to power in 2019, Brazil has been seen as an environmental villain, with deforestation skyrocketing in the Amazon rainforest – typically at the hands of small ranchers, illegal miners, land grabbers and more. of speculators. Some large soybean producers have also come under fire for clearing indigenous land, threatening indigenous communities and depleting water resources in border states such as Mato Grosso in the far west of Brazil.

But much of the country’s $ 83 billion agricultural sector recognizes that its access to international markets increasingly depends on demonstrating their commitment to sustainable practices, with technology at the heart of it.

Hundreds of “agtech” companies have sprung up to meet the demand for innovation, such as precision farming methods based on AI or biological controls – natural organisms that can replace herbicides and pesticides. The number of agtechs in Brazil increased by 40% to reach 1,574 between 2019 and 2020 according to Embrapa, an agricultural research group.

The most ambitious companies are focused on reducing carbon emissions rapidly with several promising developments just entering the market. These include feed additives that can reduce methane releases from livestock as well as soil regeneration techniques, which increase the amount of carbon the earth can store.

Last month, Brazil became the first country in the world to approve a food additive that reduces methane emissions from livestock by up to 55 percent.

“This approval is important because Brazil is the biggest exporter of animal protein. He reflects what the country has become – he knows that if you want to maintain your presence as a [agricultural] leader, you have to be innovative, ”said Mauricio Adade, LatAm president of the Dutch group DSM, which developed the product in collaboration with Brazilian scientists.

Last month, Brazil became the first country in the world to approve a feed additive that cuts methane emissions from livestock by up to 55% © Dado Galdieri / Bloomberg

Agricultural methane emissions – typically caused by burping and waste from livestock – are considered a key source of global warming, and Brazil has the world’s largest herd of 217 million cows and bulls. The Latin American nation alone accounts for nearly 9.5 percent of global agricultural methane emissions, according to the World Bank.

Developed in 45 trials over 10 years, the additive known as Bovaer uses a nitrate and bio-based alcohol to inhibit microorganisms in the intestines of cattle that produce methane during digestion. Studies show that it can reduce methane emissions by 30-55% and has no harmful effects on animals.

“If we feed Bovaer 1 million cows, that is equivalent to planting 45 million trees,” Adade said, adding that growing consumer demand for sustainable products would force farmers to adopt such measures despite the additional costs. “This is a global trend that is not going to go away. DSM said it was meeting with suppliers, supermarket chains and other types of markets to discuss the product.

Bar chart of 2020-21 showing Brazil agtechs by type

A potentially even more promising additive, which is still in development, is a species of red algae, which studies show can reduce methane emissions by up to 80%.

Ermias Kebreab, who heads research at the University of California at Davis, said the algae had “enormous potential”, especially in Brazil, where reducing emissions from the beef industry “would really help climate change. “.

“The effectiveness of algae is incredible,” he said.

However, the development of the algae – which, like Bovaer, disrupts enzymes in the gut that create methane – faces obstacles as it only grows under specific conditions: generally warm waters off the coast of ‘Hawaii and Australia.

“We need to understand how to scale this up and how to do it sustainably and affordably. If it is too expensive, no one will be able to use it, ”Professor Kebreab added.

Cost of land

These concerns are echoed by forward-looking Brazilian farmers, who say consumers need to talk with their wallets and buy products from sustainable sources, in order to create an incentive for less environmentally conscious producers.

“The answer is very simple. When the market decides to pay for it, there will be farmers interested in investing in feed additives to produce value-added products,” said Luiz Laranja, who runs a zero carbon dairy farm at inside the state of São Paulo – a feat he achieved by planting enough trees to cancel his emissions.

The image of a farmer gunslinger, released as a celebration by the Brazilian government, has been rejected by some in the industry © SecomVc / Twitter

Soraia Marques Putrino, an expert in livestock nutrition, predicted that the growth of sustainable products would be rapid, but warned that it would “remain dedicated to a niche in the market”, alluding to lack of purchasing power and lack of purchasing power. growing poverty of the poorest Brazilians.

For many in the industry, avoiding traditional ways and embracing change will also be a challenge. “The technology is there, but the mindset of farmers is not there yet,” said Kieran Gartlan, managing director of The Yield Lab, a venture capital fund. But he is optimistic: “He will get there quickly because the market demands it. To access European markets, traceability will be required.

He said the main concern remains access to credit, although this sector is also transforming with the arrival of agro-fintechs that finance farmers using digital platforms and applications. “Farmers in the red don’t care about being green. If you are financially stable and secure, the next step is to grow responsibly, ”Gartlan added.

Column chart of% of merchandise, by origin showing the share of agriculture in Brazil's exports

For Laranja, although feed additives are a ‘promising technology’, there are simpler measures that can be taken, including carbon neutralization through reforestation as well as good soil maintenance, which would increase livestock productivity. , shorten their lifespan and reduce emissions.

One group that has focused on soil management is Rizoma Agro, which has established itself as an evangelist of the untapped potential for carbon sequestration in soil.

The São Paulo-based company is the largest organic grain producer in Brazil and although its yields match conventional farming, its farms sequester carbon. This is done through a process of what the company calls ‘regenerative organic farming‘, which involves avoiding pesticides that kill soil life, planting cover crops throughout the year to maintain active soil life and using fungi and microbacteria to enrich the soil.

Co-founder Fabio Sakamoto says the potential for carbon sequestration is enormous: “In Brazil, regenerative organic practices can increase soil organic matter by an average of 1-5%. Each percentage point of soil organic matter is equivalent to 65 tonnes of CO2 equivalent removed from the atmosphere per hectare.

Deforestation has skyrocketed in the Amazon rainforest due to the activities of small farmers and illegal miners, among others © Joao Laet / AFP via Getty

If combined with the above-ground biomass and applied to Brazil’s 140 million hectares of degraded land, the overall sequestration potential could be measured in tens of gigatons, he added.

“It’s just the opportunity in Brazil; there are millions of hectares to regenerate in other countries as well. [But] we need a paradigm shift. People still work with the pesticide and herbicide spray paradigm, but we now realize that this system is very fragile. “

Pedro Diniz, managing director of Rizoma Agro, said that while costs were still a “challenge,” there is potentially a huge benefit.

“The potential of soil to hold carbon is very new and people are very surprised,” he said. “This can be a big part of the solution to climate change. “

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