Doing more with less in Brazilian agriculture

Agriculture as a strategy for combating deforestation in the Amazon and other areas of Brazil? WWF Brazil and Rabobank are jointly exploring with farmers to what extent innovative systems can contribute to this. They found that both nature and farmers stand to benefit.

Forests in Brazil are under threat. For instance, in the past 50 years, almost one fifth of the famous Amazon forest has been lost. Other forests, including the Atlantic rainforest on the coast, are also under threat. Three quarters of the deforestation occurs to make way for agriculture and livestock farming, which also account for almost one third of the country’s total CO2 emissions. Something clearly has to change, especially now that global demand for food will only continue to rise and the consequences of climate change make it more difficult for farmers to grow their crops. Therefore WWF Brazil and Rabobank are exploring, in a partnership with farmers, the options available in the wide expanses of the South American landscape to combat deforestation by innovative approaches in agriculture, while generating more profit at the same time.

Rotating agriculture and livestock farming

In Integrated Crop-Livestock-Forest (ICLF) systems, farmers rotate land for both agriculture, such as growing soy or eucalyptus, and livestock farming or forestry activities. In the 90s of the previous century, the first Brazilian farmers took the initial steps with this innovative form of crop rotation. Traditionally, farmers already rotate crops on their land in winter and in summer. For instance, they may grow soy beans in winter and corn in summer, on the same land. Letting livestock graze instead of growing the second crop hugely increases yields and far fewer investments are required, for instance in artificial fertilisers. Owing to the livestock and their fertilisation, new nutrients enter the soil, which in turn improves both pastures and animal health. The more productive soil makes the crops more resilient in the face of the emerging consequences of climate change, such as irregular rains and droughts.

Six times less land required

That this system is effective is evident from a joint study that Rabobank and WWF Brazil carried out as part of their partnership with the farmers. While the yield of ICLF systems may be the same as from regular agriculture, six times less land is required to achieve it. This reduces the pressure entailed by demand for new production areas, and thus helps to combat deforestation. This system also offers economic benefits for the farmers. They do not have to maintain as much land and can invest less in herbicides and pesticides. On top of this, farmers also contribute to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
ICLF systems are often used by livestock farmers, who introduce crops such as rice, soy and corn on the pastures in order to increase their productivity. But growing numbers of agricultural farms are also letting livestock graze on their fields.

Productivity

One of those is the Gazarini Group, a family business in the Central-West Region of Brazil, which has already been working with Rabobank for around ten years. The business grows grain, soy beans, barley, beans and corn on a large plot of land, of 4,000 hectares. Caroline Gazarini, daughter of the founder and since recently also active in the family business, discusses how ICLF has improved the productivity of its business operations. “Do we let plots of land lie idle after the harvest, or can more be done with them? That is why we started, around ten years ago, to let livestock graze on plots of agricultural land after harvesting. The aim was to improve our productivity. After harvesting corn, we replaced the soil with grass so we could let livestock graze on it. Thanks to this system, our operations are now diversified, which reduces our business risks. At the same time, productivity is increased and the soil no longer becomes depleted as its use changes continually. This in turn means our crops are affected by fewer illnesses and plagues and we can reduce the use of pesticides. And importantly: we can produce without having to cut down forests. We continually re-use our own plots of land. There are many forests around our farm. They are a nature reserve and are protected by law.”

Clean energy

As one of the front-runners in the field of sustainability, the Gazarini Group has taken things even further. For instance, besides deploying more sustainable agricultural systems, it sources all the required energy for the grain silos and storehouses from solar energy, having installed its own solar panels. As a result, the Gazarini Group is one of the first agricultural businesses in Brazil that is virtually self-sufficient for its energy. “We often receive visits from other farmers who want to see this for themselves, because they want to do the same,” says Gazarini. “Our solar panel system generates 1240 kW of clean electricity every day. This powers not only the silos but is also enough to supply electricity to all our employees’ houses as well as our own home in Jatai, where we live. Which is a good thing, given the problems with the distribution of energy that are a regular occurrence in Brazil. Thanks to this solution we no longer depend on this.”

The Gazarini Group is continually pursuing further improvements. For example, it is working on better processing of by-products and waste from silos, which in turn is used as animal feed, for instance. It is using technology and GPS to work on more efficient agriculture, for instance to ensure that less seed is lost while sowing. “And we also want to do more to advance the reforestation of the land around the sources of small rivers. These are often already protected areas, but we want to improve this even further.”

Partnership

Besides exploring the use of the ICLF systems, in part by carrying out research, the partnership between WWF Brazil, Rabobank and farmers comprises further elements. Thus Rabobank Brazil added information on sustainable water management, the application of the forest code (the Brazilian act intended to combat deforestation of the Amazon), and farmers’ 10 best sustainability practices to its CSR manual. The bank has agreed with each customer that the latter will set up their business operations in accordance with this CSR manual.

Advertorials on sustainable land use have been placed in conjunction with the agricultural specialist publication Globo in their magazine and farmers who are front-runners in sustainable business practices have won the Globo Award. WWF Brazil also held a workshop on the 10 best sustainability practices during the Sustainability Field Day. This day, in which 100 farmers participated, was hosted at the Gazarini Group’s farm.