Doing more with less in Brazilian agriculture

The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) Brazil and Rabobank are jointly exploring with farmers to what extent innovative systems can combat deforestation in the Amazon and other areas of Brazil. They found that both nature and farmers stand to benefit.

Forests in Brazil are under threat. 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 as the global demand for food continues to rise and the consequences of climate change make it more difficult for farmers to grow their crops. The WWF Brazil and Rabobank are therefore partnering with farmers, to explore the options available to combat deforestation through innovative approaches in agriculture, while generating more profit at the same time.

Rotating agriculture and livestock farming

Innovation is not new to Brazilian farmers. During the 1990’s, they started with a new form of crop rotation, known as Integrated Crop-Livestock-Forest (ICLF) systems. Here farmers rotate land for both agriculture, such as growing soy or eucalyptus, and livestock farming or forestry activities.

Traditionally, farmers 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 requires far fewer investments, 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.

"Our productivity is increased and the soil no longer becomes depleted as its use changes continually."

- Caroline Gazarini of Gazarini Group Brazil

Six times less land required

The effectiveness of this system is evident from a joint study carried out by Rabobank and WWF Brazil 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 pressurised demand for new production areas, and helps combat deforestation. This system also offers farmers financial benefits. They do not have to maintain as much land and can invest less in herbicides and pesticides. In addition, 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 in practice

One of those is the Gazarini Group, a family business in the Central-West Region of Brazil. 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 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.”

RTLZ video with Caroline Gazarini (from 1.21 to 2.00)

Clean energy

As one of the front-runners in the field of sustainability, the Gazarini Group has taken things even further. Besides deploying more sustainable agricultural systems, it sources all the required energy for the grain silos and storehouses from 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. 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.”

Knowledge and network partnership

The partnership between WWF Brazil, Rabobank and farmers goes further than only exploring the use of the ICLF systems.. Rabobank Brazil has added information on sustainable water management, the application of the forest code (a Brazilian act intended to combat deforestation of the Amazon), and farmers’ 10 best sustainability practices to its Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) manual. The bank has also agreed with each customer that theywill set up their business operations in accordance with this CSR manual.

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