Circular economy

Sweet Success

Andrea Vialli Valor Economico | Updated on March 10, 2018 Published on October 27, 2017

Leonino Balbo, from Native "In practice, organic farming associated with areas of native vegetation transforms ou crops in a carbon sink. The fauna inventories show that the company's areas concentrate a level of biodiversity superior to the one found in the forests " (Photo credit: Joyce Cury/Valor)

Sugar cane production by Native. (Photo credit: Native)

Native is demonstrating the possibility of a productive and regenerative agriculture. (Photo credit: Native)

Sugar cane production by Native. (Photo credit: Native)

Sugar cane production by Native. (Photo credit: Native)

A third-generation Brazilian farmer has adopted new methods and machines to make sugarcane farming eco-friendly and more successful than ever

Sugar runs in Leontino Balbo Junior’s veins. The 50-something Brazilian is executive vice-president of Native (formerly Grupo Balbo), Brazil’s biggest organic-sugar grower. Founded in 1946 by Balbo’s grandfather, the business has grown from a humble family run affair into one of the most successful organic-sugar producers in the world.

Agribusiness is an important cornerstone of the Brazilian economy, representing 23 per cent of GDP and more than 30 percent of jobs. The nation produces more sugar than any other country in the world and exports approximately 28 million tons annually. But sugar production can leave a nasty aftertaste: Fertilizers and agrochemicals erode soil and pollute water, harming both people and wildlife, and the biannual cleaning of processing mills flushes vast quantities of toxic waste out into surrounding areas.

It was in 1986 that Balbo, fresh out of São Paulo University with a degree in agronomy, began to brainstorm more ecological methods for cultivating sugarcane. His objective was to boost productivity, increase pest resistance and reduce the resources required for cultivation.

Balbo came up with a plan, which he christened “ecosystem revitalizing agriculture” (ERA); he was convinced that it would both revive failing crops and restore depleted soil.

Keen to prove the effectiveness of ERA to the world, Balbo chose to work with the failing sugar cultivar SP84-2025. Once a highly productive plant variety, SP84-2025 became susceptible to yellow-leaf virus in the late 1990s and was all but abandoned by São Paulo’s sugarcane producers.

Central to Balbo’s agricultural approach is a deep respect for the soil. He believes that modern farming harms soil in three ways: Farm machinery compresses it, reducing its water retention; fertilizers interfere with its natural chemical balance; and monocrops reduce its biodiversity. Yet healthy soil is essential for healthy plants.

“So much soil used for agriculture is dead,” Balbo said. “We need to revitalize it, to restore the energy of its ecosystem.”

To achieve this, Balbo created a 16,000-hectare “test lab” on the family plantation and slowly began to try out his new farming methods. First he did away with the old farming technique of crop burning, whereby mature sugar cane is burned prior to being harvested in order to get rid of leafy material and stalk tops, which are about 20-25 percent of the plant.

Not burning this “waste” would increase transportation and processing costs; what’s more, it kills off pests and snakes. But there are downsides. “After burning, the cane releases a sugar melt, like honey, which drips down into the soil. So the harvesters also have to collect the melt, which is full of dirt,” Balbo said.

Washing off this solidified melt uses more than three million liters of water every hour — an immense waste. Balbo spent five years, from 1988 to 1993, developing a new mechanical harvester that could cut the cane “green,” while the leaves are still on the plant. The machine has a hopper device with opposing currents of air that remove the leaves and then scatter them on the ground.

Balbo argues that this style of harvesting returns more than 20 tons of agricultural waste per hectare to the soil eachyear, restoring nutrients — notably nitrogen — and forming a protective mesh to help reduce weeds.

To address soil compression, Balbo modified the tires on his farming equipment. “Farm equipment is heavy,” he said.

“Wherever you drive, you compress the soil, changing its geometric structure and reducing its ability to hold water.” He switched to ultra-soft tires that are partially deflated before going out to the field in order to reduce the impact on the soil.

At the heart of Balbo’s approach and techniques is the principle that, if he can restore the condition of his soil to that of a forest, nature will do the rest. But Mother Nature works slowly, and from 1992 and 2000, Balbo noticed more than a few stress-related grey hairs.

“We weren’t getting good crop yields, and the environmental results took some time to kick in.”

Meanwhile, the number of pests skyrocketed. “I didn't know exactly where the problem was, was it in the tires or in the trash? It is difficult to know what causes what in the environment.” But then, after five consecutive years of feeding the soil with layers of agricultural waste, an increasing diversity of micro and macro fauna emerged, and the sugarcane grew much stronger.

Now, Balbo can sit at his desk and look out over the lush São Paulo countryside that made up his childhood memories knowing that his gamble has paid off. His land is now home to hundreds of forest animals — fox, deer, capybara, armadillos, numerous species of birds and four types of big cats. From a business perspective, the gains have been considerable: Native now produces 87,000 tonnes of organic sugar annually—34 percent of the world market.

He also has an impressive list of international clients: The Body Shop, Green & Blacks and Yeo Valley to name just a few.

Laura Santos Prada, an agronomist with the environmental organization Imaflora, believes that Balbo has successfully demonstrated the possibility of achieving highly productive and regenerative agriculture on an industrial scale. Imaflora estimates that less than one per cent of agriculture in Brazil receives any sort of environmental certification at all.

“It’s becoming increasingly necessary for conventional production systems to move towards ecological and agroforestry systems that combine the cultivation of agricultural plants with the maintenance of areas of native forest,” said Santos Prada.

For Balbo, the motivation is simple: “I love so much what I do, I have a wonderful opportunity to help people eat healthy products while contributing to the environment.” If only all farmers felt the same.

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Published on October 27, 2017
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