After the Brazilian government posted a photo online earlier this year of a gun bearer dressed in hunting gear to celebrate World Agriculture Day, the setback was quick.
“Absurd. It does not represent Brazilian farmers. Your shame [us], ”Said Marcello Brito, president of the Brazilian Association of Agribusiness, and criticized what he saw as the government’s archaic attitude towards farming.
One of the most prominent voices in the sector, his opinion is shared by many farmers in Brazil – around the world largest producer of a variety of foods, including coffee, sugar, soybeans and beef – which believes that advances in technology and sustainability have been overshadowed by the government’s aversion to the environment.
Since Jair Bolsonaro came to power in 2019, Brazil has been seen as an environmental villain, with deforestation in the Amazon rainforest typical of peasants, illegal miners, land grabbers and speculators. Some larger soybean farmers have also been criticized 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 acknowledges that its access to international markets is increasingly dependent on evidence of their commitment to sustainable practices, with technology at its core.
Hundreds of “agtech” companies have turned up to meet the demand for innovation, as on AI precision farming methods or biological control – natural organisms that can replace herbicides and pesticides. According to Embrapa, an agricultural research group, the number of achtechs in Brazil grew by 40 percent to 1574 between 2019 and 2020.
The most ambitious ventures are focused on rapidly reducing carbon emissions, with several promising developments now just reaching the market. These include additives that can reduce methane emissions from cattle, as well as soil recovery techniques, which increase the amount of carbon the earth can store.
Last month, Brazil became the first country in the world to approve an additive to feed that reduces methane emissions from cattle by as much as 55 percent.
‘This approval is important because Brazil is the largest exporter of animal proteins. It reflects what the country has become – it knows that if you want to maintain your presence [agricultural] leader, you have to be innovative, ”says Mauricio Adade, LatAm president of the Dutch group DSM, which developed the product in collaboration with Brazilian scientists.
Methane emissions from agriculture – typical of cattle and waste – are considered a major source of global warming and Brazil has the largest herd of 217 million cows and bulls in the world. According to the World Bank, the Latin American country alone is responsible for nearly 9.5 percent of global methane emissions from agriculture.
The additive, known as Bovaer, developed through 45 trials over 10 years, uses a nitrate and bio-based alcohol to inhibit the microorganisms in the intestines of cattle that produce methane during digestion. Studies show that it can reduce methane emissions between 30 and 55 percent and that it has no adverse effect on the animals.
“If we feed Bovaer to 1m of cows, it is the equivalent of planting 45m of trees,” Adade said, adding that increasing consumer demand for sustainable products will force farmers to take such measures despite the extra cost. ‘It’s a global trend that will not go away. DSM said it is meeting with suppliers and supermarket chains and other types of markets to discuss the product.
A potentially even more promising addition, which is still in the development phase, is a species of red seaweed, which studies show can reduce methane emissions by up to 80 percent.
Ermias Kebreab, who is leading the research at the University of California at Davis, said the seaweed has great potential, especially in Brazil, where reducing emissions from the beef industry ‘would really help’ climate change ‘.
“The efficiency of the seaweed is incredible,” he said.
However, the development of the seaweed – which, like Bovaer, disrupts the enzymes in the intestines that cause methane – faces obstacles because it grows only in specific conditions: usually warm water off the coasts of Hawaii and Australia.
“We need to understand how we can grow it on a large scale and how to do it sustainably and cheaply. If it is too expensive, no one will be able to use it, ”Prof Kebreab added.
The earth costs
Such concerns are reiterated by the forward-thinking farmers in Brazil, who say consumers should talk to their wallets and buy products that are sustainable to create an incentive for less environmentally conscious producers.
‘The answer is very simple. If the market decides to pay for it, there will be farmers who are interested in making additives to produce value-added products, ”says Luiz Laranja, who runs a carbon-free dairy farm in the interior of the state of São Paulo. plant enough trees to eliminate its emissions.
Soraia Marques Putrino, an expert in animal nutrition, predicted that the growth of sustainable products would be rapid, but warned that it would ‘remain committed to a niche of the market’, suggesting that lack of purchasing power and increasing poverty among poorer Brazilians.
For many in the sector, it is also a challenge to avoid traditional methods and accept change. “The technology is there, but the farmers’ mindset is not there yet,” says Kieran Gartlan, managing director at The Yield Lab, a venture capital fund. But he is optimistic: ‘It will come quickly, because the market demands it. Access to European markets will require traceability. ”
He said the biggest concern remains access to credit, although this sector is also changing with the advent of ag-fintechs that fund farmers using digital platforms and applications. “Farmers in the red do not care about being green. If you are financially stable and secure, the next step is to farm responsibly, ”Gartlan added.
Although feed additives are a ‘promising technology’ for Laranja, there are simpler steps that can be taken, including carbon neutralization through reforestation as well as proper soil maintenance, which can increase cattle productivity, shorten their lifespan and reduce emissions.
One group that has focused on soil management is Rizoma Agro, which has emerged as an evangelist for the untapped potential for carbon uptake into the soil.
The company, headquartered in São Paulo, is the largest producer of organic grains in Brazil, and although its yields are in line with conventional agriculture, its farms produce carbon. This is done through a process the company calls ‘regenerative organic farming’, which includes avoiding pesticides that kill soil life, planting cover crops throughout the year to keep soil life active and using fungi and microbacteria to enrich the land.
Co-founder Fabio Sakamoto says the potential for carbon sequestration is enormous: “In Brazil, regenerating organic practices can increase soil organic matter by an average of 1 to 5 percent. Each percentage point in soil organic matter is equal to 65 tons of Co2 equivalent extracted from the atmosphere per hectare. ”
When combined with the biomass above ground and applied to Brazil’s estimated 140m hectares of degraded land, the total potential for sequestration in the tens of gigatons can be measured, he added.
‘This is just the opportunity in Brazil; there are millions of acres that can be restored in other countries as well. [But] it requires a change of paradigm. People are still working with the paradigm of spraying pesticides and herbicides – but now we realize that this system is very fragile. ”
Pedro Diniz, CEO of Rizoma Agro, said while costs are still a ‘challenge’, there is a huge benefit.
“The potential of soil to hold carbon is very new and people are very surprised,” he said. ‘It could be a big part of the solution to climate change.