Is this the Future of Global Food Systems?

Disruptive Innovation Festival Leontino Balbo
on the future of global food systems Some people get intrigued
about how I see the next step. I do not see anything,
the nature tells me what to do. What am I?
I am an observer. I believe that the further you want to go, the less you have to take with you. That’s what I do. I develop a technology,
I profit from it and I go to the next one. And we leave, to allow
everybody else to profit from that. My name is Leontino Balbo Jr, I’m an agronomist and a executive
at Balbo Group in Brazil. Balbo Group is composed
by three sugar mills: two in Sao Paulo State
and one in Minas Gerais State. Lots of change were done until we totally change the profile
of our company and our business. We switched 20,000 hectares
of cane sugar plantation from conventional production technology into revitalizing agriculture. This results from this new type
of agriculture were so good that we became the biggest supplier
of organic sugar in the world. We export to 64 countries,
and now we also supply neutral organic alcohol
for the cosmetic industry. My grandfather started working
for the King of Coffee, Mr. Schmidt, a hundred and ten years ago. He had 12 children, which also
worked for the German boss. Since the beginning, they were used
to face the soil and farm challenges, which made all things easier for me. When I arrived here I started
working as an agronomist. In the second week I couldn’t accept
the cane burning, all those things, so I started to burn the cane,
to cut it by hand, to drop it in the soil, to dirty it
and then to take it to the mill, where we used to need four million liters
of water per hour to wash that cane. If we harvest that cane green,
we wouldn’t need that much water. Something inside me said that we should find
a cleaner way of producing. I proposed the Green Cane Project,
aiming to improve the production way, to take the cane to manifest
its ecological potential. We’re going to to lower the environmental
impact of the production, while at the same time
reducing the production’s costs. It worked so well that this mill was the first one
to harvest green cane in Brazil, and then our example was followed by 90% of the cane groves in Brazil. Deep transformation is easier to happen in a family business
than in other kinds of big companies. The next step after green cane harvests was that I decided to eliminate
the chemical fertilisers, and then I decided
to abolish the pesticides. I didn’t know how to do it
and I was a little confused, so I decided to go inside
a forest to relax my mind. I opened myself to the nature wisdom, and suddenly I started seeing
inside the forest, like an infographic. I saw the birds, the insects
and everything was interconnected. There was a very sophisticated
system of communication, and I realized that all of those insects were not attacking
the plants of the forest but the same insects
used to attack the canes. So, why? I started observing what used
to happen inside that forest, and one by one, exemple
by example I learned, I started transferring
them to agriculture. There are lots of useful
information in the nature that we can use to create the basis
of a new production system, which is less impactant,
more rational and more efficient. We can observe the design,
totally healthy leaves and the reason is the focus here,
we do not put too much focus on the crop. The focus is in the environment
and in the ecosystem as a whole. The result of that is the ecosystem
itself takes care of the crop. We don’t fertilize the crop. We feed the soil life and then
it takes care of the cane, about its nutrition and its
immunological system. And we don’t have one eaten part,
one bite, no problems and no disease in our cane,
in 20,000 hectares. Ecosystem revitalizing
agriculture is an agriculture, but at the same time provides
all conditions for the crop growth with no plagues and diseases problems, but at the same time providing to the environment
the most important environmental services, like preserving the water, improving and keeping soil fertility, bringing back the fauna biodiversity and absorbing carbon from other
activities of the economy. One of the most interesting results of implementing
the revitalizing agriculture is the radical change
of the soil structure. It was recovered in a such high level that the soils are even reaching a soil fertility class higher
than we had in the world before men started
disturbing the environment. This is a naturally structured rich soil, and it retains four times more
water than a conventional soil, in a way that we produce 20%
above conventional production without any irrigation. And the best thing is that this
soil helps the water lifecycle. It has the capacity of infiltrating
and storing water in six times in a way that the water is enough
for the crop, to evaporate, to be transferred to the clouds
and also to supply the aquifer. Some measurements showed
that the fresh water here, in the farms, streams
and rivers increased 30%. Besides becoming more fertile
and providing much better yields, the soil was rebuilt
by the activity of fungus, bacteria and hundreds of different
species of insects. and it now presents a resilience. Recently researchers discovered that the fungus act
as a natural Internet in the soils. They are translators of the different
ways of communication among vegetables, bacterias
insects and so on. Ninety percent of the machinery
didn’t fit in what we were doing, so we started studying
what were the soil demands. Then we started customizing
here, in our workshop, with our mechanics and electricians, equipments like tillers and harvesters. In order to provide and guarantee
that this soil is biodiversity friendly our harvesters are equipped
with metal tracks which pressure over the soil is 9 psi. In the same way, those trucks are equipped
with ultra-high rotation tires. We choose about 20 psi of pressure. This guarantees the soil
is not going to be compacted and that under the stretch
there will be enough comfort level for all life forms
which promotes the soil rebuilt. While the machine harvest the cane, it spreads 20 tonnes
of trash over the field, twenty tonnes of trash
per hectare in a year. And this trash provides soil
comfort for the life forms which reconstructs the soil. The production model
is pretty much closed and circular. We harvest the cane, take it
to the mill, where it’s processed, then we have the production
of alcohol, sugar, electricity and so on. Then we take back
all the organic waste products. We take them back to the field
and they are used to feed the life forms. So, in a way we have a closed cycle, and nothing is lost. Here we can see another important
stage of the management. We are seeing vinasse’s application. Vinasse is a very
important organic fertilizer and we use the vinesse, which is rich
in organic matter and nutrients to boost the soil and life forms activity. Here we integrate sophisticated
harvesting technologies with natural practices. This is the current concept of modernity
for me, not the opposite. We don’t need to have everything
artificial, synthetic or electronic. Our production environment
became a lot more resilient. The weather has been much more
unpredictable than it used to be before, but now we can get more tonnes of cane per millimeter of rain. Compared to 30 years ago,
we more than doubled, and compared to 10 years ago
the efficiency increased in 15%. One of the main concerns when we started
was how we would measure the results. and then I went after idoneus institutions like Embrapa, University of São Paulo,
University of Campinas, and I looked for specialized people
in soil fertility, fauna biodiversity, water resources, atmosphere,
CO2 release and so on. We have lots of publications and studies
about how the soil fertility evolved here, how biodiversity evolved here, and so on. Just as an example, after a whole year
of organic production, besides compensating all our releases, we extracted 45,000 tonnes of co2
from other economic activities. So we are not just just carbon
neutral, we are carbon sink. We do not analyze water and soil anymore,
because the ecologists taught me that the best way to compare the results is using biological indicators. For instance, we have some
insects and some animals here that are extremely demanding
in terms of environment comfort. We have 340 species
of superior vertebrates, mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians, which means more than 50%
of the natural parks in São Paulo state. And these are astonishing news, because they break the scientific paradigm that monoculture is bad for biodiversity. What is bad for biodiversity
is the management, the way you do, and not what you plant. The soil change was not the last thing
that happened here, it was the first, but one of the last things
was how the soil change and this different agriculture method
impacted the business model. Since the first day, 19 years ago, when we started to sell our certified
products, we never have a loss There were profits every year, because the price is constructed
over the basis of the sustainability. In order to define the prices, we consider how much costs
the social, the environmental and economic aspects of this business. This is a total different relationship among all the actors
participating in the value chain, from the grower to the industrial
food manufacturer, because in conventional food chains what happens is the gross margin remain 90% of the grow margin, with that actor which keeps
the key resource of the food chain. Sometimes it’s the logistic,
or the financial capital, sometimes it’s the clients and so on. But in sustainable
food chain or value chain, this margin is more equitably
distributed along the chain, because this connection happens. Surely we can’t apply it instantly
in nine million hectares of sugarcane, but the same principles can be applied to other crops, charts,
planted forests and so on. The system has not a recipe
like in the conventional, where there’s a pack you must use. You can do it in thousands
of different ways, because you are talking
about natural principles. If you observe the nature, you are going to see thousands
of different ways of doing it, reaching the same objectives,
vegetable and animal production. I think that the biggest difficulty
is not teaching people how to do one operation,
the change and so on. I think that the challenge
is how to change people’s mind, because men emancipated themselves
from the natural rhythms, so we lost a big important
part of ourselves, which is the capacity of perceiving
ourselves in the environment. The nature is teaching us
the lessons we didn’t have before, and we must learn very quickly that there is an intelligence coordinating
what happens in the nature. We have to convince all people, no matter if they are organic producers
or conventional producers, to have a more systemic vision of the whole, of the farm, of the business
and especially about the role of the human being in this planet. My long-term vision
for this production method considers a consciousness expansion. What we did in 20,000 hectares
is just the tip of the iceberg. I foresee that we can, for instance,
take back, switch garbage from the big cities
to the agriculture ecosystem. And in the same way we did here,
we can feed the life of the soil with all the waste products of the cities, closing the cycle, turning it circular. I foresee a wide range of application,
because since is based on a principle, we can find housands of different ways
of getting the same result.

5 thoughts on “Is this the Future of Global Food Systems?

  1. It is for sure a good alternative to chemical farming; but still better it wood be if 20.000 families would live of the production of one hectar, instead of one company owner of 20.000 hectars and doing a high tech industrial food production.

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