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Crop of agtechs aim to overturn Brazil’s image as eco villain

After the Brazilian government posted a photo online of a rifle-wielding farmer clad in hunting gear to celebrate world agriculture day earlier this year, the backlash was swift.

“Absurd. This doesn’t represent Brazilian farmers. This shames [us],” said Marcello Brito, the president of the Brazilian Association of Agribusiness, criticising what he saw as the government’s archaic attitude towards farming.

One of the sector’s most prominent voices, his view is shared by many farmers in Brazil — the world’s largest producer of an array of food stuffs, including coffee, sugar, soyabeans and beef — who feel that advances in technology and sustainability have been overshadowed by the government’s woeful environmental credentials.

Since Jair Bolsonaro came to power in 2019, Brazil has been perceived as an environmental villain, with deforestation soaring in the Amazon rainforest — typically at the hands of small-scale ranchers, illegal miners, land grabbers and speculators. Some larger soyabean farmers have also been criticised for clearing native land, threatening indigenous communities and exhausting water resources in frontier states such as Mato Grosso in Brazil’s far west.

But a large chunk of the country’s $83bn agricultural sector recognises that its access to international markets increasingly depends on proving their commitment to sustainable practices, with technology at the heart of this.

Hundreds of “agtech” companies have popped up to cater to demand for innovation, such as AI-based precision farming methods or biological controls — natural organisms that can replace herbicides and pesticides. The number of agtechs in Brazil grew 40 per cent to 1574 between 2019 and 2020 according to Embrapa, an agricultural research group.

The most ambitious enterprises are focused on quickly cutting carbon emissions with several promising developments now just reaching the market. These include feed additives that can slash methane discharge from cattle as well as soil regeneration techniques, which increase how much carbon the earth can store.

Last month, Brazil became the first country in the world to approve a feed additive that reduces methane emissions from cattle by as much as 55 per cent.

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

Last month Brazil became the first country in the world to approve a feed additive that reduces methane emissions from cattle by as much as 55 per cent © Dado Galdieri/Bloomberg

Agricultural methane emissions — typically from cattle burps and waste — are considered a key source of global warming and Brazil has the world’s largest herd of 217m cows and bulls. The Latin American nation alone accounts for almost 9.5 per cent of global agricultural methane emissions, according to the World Bank.

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

“If we feed Bovaer to 1m cows, it is the equivalent of planting 45m trees,” said Adade, adding that growing consumer demands for sustainable produce would compel farmers to adopt such measures despite the added costs. “This is a global trend that will not go away.” DSM said it was meeting suppliers and supermarket chains and other types of market 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 stage, is a species of red seaweed, which studies demonstrate can reduce methane emissions by as much as 80 per cent.

Ermias Kebreab, who is leading the research at the University of California in Davis, said the seaweed had “huge potential”, particularly in Brazil, where reducing emissions from the beef industry would “really help climate change”.

“The effectiveness of the seaweed is amazing,” he said.

However, the development of the seaweed — which like Bovaer disrupts the enzymes in the gut that create methane — faces hurdles because it only grows in specific conditions: typically warm waters off the coasts of Hawaii and Australia.

“We have to understand how to grow this at scale and how to do it sustainably and cheaply. If it is too expensive, nobody will be able to use it,” added Prof Kebreab.

Costing the earth

Such concerns are echoed by Brazil’s forward-looking farmers, who say that consumers need to speak with their wallets and purchase sustainably-sourced products, in order to create an incentive for less eco-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 added value products,” said Luiz Laranja, who runs a zero carbon dairy farm in the interior of São Paulo state — a feat he achieved by planting enough trees to cancel out his emissions.

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

Soraia Marques Putrino, a cattle nutrition expert, predicted that the growth of sustainable produce will be fast, but warned it “will remain dedicated to a niche of the market,” alluding to the lack of purchasing power and rising poverty among poorer Brazilians.

For many in the sector, eschewing traditional methods and embracing change will also be a challenge. “The tech is there, but the farmers’ mindset is not there yet,” said Kieran Gartlan, managing director at The Yield Lab, a venture capital fund. But he is optimistic: “It will get there quickly because the market is demanding it. For access to European markets there will need to be traceability.”

He said the primary concern remained access to credit, although this sector is also transforming with the arrival of ag-fintechs who finance farmers using digital platforms and apps. “Farmers in the red don’t care about being green. If you are financially stable and secure, then the next step is to farm responsibly,” Gartlan added.

Column chart of % of goods, by origin showing agriculture's share of Brazil's exports

For Laranja, although feed additives are a “promising technology”, there are simpler steps that can be taken, including carbon neutralisation via reforestation as well as proper soil maintenance, which would increase the productivity of cattle, shortening their lifespans and reducing emissions.

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

The São Paulo-headquartered company is the largest grower of organic grains in Brazil and while its yields match conventional agriculture, its farms sequester carbon. This is done through a process of what the company calls “regenerative organic agriculture”, which includes avoiding pesticides that kill soil life, planting cover crops throughout the year to keep the 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, regenerative organic practices can increase soil organic matter from an average of 1 up to 5 per cent. Each percentage point in soil organic matter equals 65 tons of Co2 equivalent drawn down from the atmosphere per hectare.”

Deforestation has been soaring in the Amazon rainforest as a result of the activities of small-scale farmers and illegal miners among others © Joao Laet/AFP via Getty

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

“This is just the opportunity in Brazil; there are millions of hectares to regenerate in other countries as well. [But] it takes a change of paradigm. People are still working with the paradigm of spraying pesticides and herbicides — but now we realise that this system is very fragile.”

Pedro Diniz, chief executive of Rizoma Agro, said that while costs were still a “challenge”, there is potentially a huge upside.

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

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