Leontino Balbo Jr. is one of the main directors of the Balbo group and at the head of Native, a Brazilian sugar cane company that has been taking innovative action to achieve complete sustainability for nearly thirty years. The Rio +20 Earth Summit made now an ideal time for him to share with us his views on the achievements and future goals of sustainable food production in emerging countries.
How did Native become a sustainable company?
The story of Native is long and unique. We are talking about almost 30 years of research, and 25 years of project implementation. In 1984, when I joined my family’s business, the Balbo group, as a graduate in agronomy, my first impressions were not very positive. I had particular concerns about sugar cane burnings: the fact that the waste products generated during sugar production were not re-used seemed a shame to me. In addition,manually cutting burned cane was a very hard job for workers. So I proposed to the board that we take our activities to a higher level of sustainability. My first goals were to decrease our dependency on the multinational company supplying agrochemicals and fertilizers, and to implement a cleaner production system. This called for several key changes, in terms of the environment and of social impact (see the focus on the Green Cane Project at the end of the article). And that is how we became organic, as a result of pursuing a conviction.
In 1997, for the first time, we produced 1,600 tons of certified organic sugar. And production has been consistently growing by 25% per year since then. In 2012, we expect to sell over 90,000 tons of organic products in more than fifty countries, on five continents, to major companies that want to incorporate the sustainable value of our products into their production chains.
How do you set your goals in terms of sustainability?
We produced a wide range of scientific studies to select and measure what we call “Indicators of Sustainability”. We developed scientific partnerships with the most highly-regarded Brazilian universities and research centres, to lead extremely comprehensive surveys, from soil fertility to water, to air quality and to biodiversity. These can be accessed readily on our website www.nativealimentos.com.br. In fact, I do not think that we have to follow specific legislation, as long as we are able to offer solid proof that our activity is sustainable. The use of certification to pass the environmental and social value of our products on to the rest of the food industry has worked perfectly for us, with more than 120 food businesses worldwide.
Our results were also made possible because we developed a unique new agricultural production system that goes way beyond the principles of traditional organic production. The technological package of conventional agriculture is not delivering what it promised: yield has not increased and meanwhile environmental problems and health issues are accumulating.
At Native, our production system achieves 20% higher productivity than conventional sugar cane production, with genuine concern for environmental, social and economic factors. It is the first time that an organic, large-scale initiative has produced a higher yield than conventional agriculture!
What is your view, then, of what should be done to achieve large-scale sustainable agriculture?
Everything must be changed if we really want to achieve that, and stop contenting ourselves with greenwashing. I am not here to point fingers at anyone, but to offer solutions.
I have been researching natural productions systems for the last 27 years, and now all the knowledge that I develop is scientifically systematized. I feel it is my duty to disclose this expertise to other growers in years to come, and I hope it will help apply our findings to other fields, other crops, that can provide the same results in terms of environmental benefits, even if they are not certified as organic. And, as soon as the new agricultural system is successfully implemented in the supply chain, social and economic aspects will improve too.
As both a Brazilian and an entrepreneur in sustainable agriculture, how do you feel that environmental concern has evolved in your country in recent years?
There have been many changes, and they have happened in two main ways. First of all, some companies like ours have become deeply determined to achieve a high level of sustainability. Natura, Klabin or Duratex, for instance, have been doing excellent work in this area – and their example has motivated other major companies to go sustainable too. The second important fact is that over the last twenty to thirty years, the Brazilian authorities have drafted the strictest environmental and employment laws in the world. For instance, we have specific environmental laws for water, air quality, forestry and soil conservation which are much more demanding than their equivalents in North America or in Europe. Our new Forestry Code guarantees that 73% of the country’s surface will be dedicated to natural vegetation conservation! At this point in time, no other country has endorsed such a demanding forestry policy.
Up until the beginning of the 2000s, these laws were not being complied with 100%, due to the high level of corruption in Brazil. But the authorities have recently imposed strict respect for requirements on all actors: companies, cities, states, etc. This shows how much the government is willing to make sustainability happen, even in the entities that resist change. It is thus fair to assume that continuous progress is going to be made in this field in Brazil, with or without pain! It is up to the actors to decide which way they want to play it.
Do you feel that Brazil may be setting a course for emerging and developing countries?
Yes, definitely. There are key initiatives implemented by private companies decades ago which are only achieving international and official recognition now.
For instance, the Brazilian Ethanol Programme from sugarcane, which started in 1975, has already saved 200 billion dollars in oil imports so far, and has avoided the accumulation of hundreds of millions of tons of carbon in the atmosphere. It has also generated 5 million jobs. Another example is the bioelectricity we create using sugarcane bagasse: the Balbo group produces 100% of the energy it needs to process around 6 million tons of sugarcane per year. Beyond that, thanks to our investment in cutting-edge technology, we have generated enough extra power to supply a city of 540,000 inhabitants. If every ethanol or sugar plant in Brazil adopted our technology, we could generate three times the production of the Belo Monte hydroelectric complex (a controversial complex set on the Xigu River in Brazil – ed.)!
Today, around 60% of the energy produced in Brazil comes from renewable sources. As for other emerging countries, I feel that they have a greater chance of going sustainable, because they have everything to invent and to build, and they can do that by following the best examples. They may just be the ones that are going to manage to finally impose a new model for the world, especially if the developed world continues to resist the implementation of genuine, sustainable principles so strongly. I think it should abandon what I call “communication war” and start promoting real changes in its business models. There is a major distance, in these countries, between what politicians would like to see happen and what corporations actually do. And I feel that agriculture there serves corporate agendas before thinking of how it can be beneficial to farms and those who run them.
What are you thankful for? What do you see, what do you dread and what do you hope for in the future?
I think Brazil has a lot to celebrate. Firstly because many examples now show that it is perfectly possible to achieve harmonious cohabitation between environmental preservation and economic development. Secondly, because we now know what remains to be done. I hope that Native will be seen as an example of what can be achieved for the future, as living proof that anything is possible. Just imagine, we have now four species of Brazilian big cats (pumas, painted cats, jaguarundis and wild cats) fighting over territory in our organic cane fields! Twenty years ago, I could not have imagined that, even in my wildest dreams. Brazil can be one of the greatest countries in which to live, work and raise a family. It is a place where you could be genuinely and deeply happy. Most urgently though, we need to eliminate the high level of corruption that cripples the country. People say that we have problems with public security, education, health, etc., but all of these problems would be automatically resolved if corruption was eliminated. I want a Brazil free from corruption.
And I want sustainability to be a way of life for the future of mankind. I guess that in twenty, thirty years from now, it will be automatic in anything connected with nature, thanks to the investments that are currently being made in the field, and in youth education. I deeply believe that you can change anything if you aim your conscious will at what you wish for. I consider myself to be an ice breaker. That means that I am not allowed to dread at all! As I usually move fast, my only concern is whether others can follow before the ice track closes behind me…
The 8 steps of the Green Cane Project, in the words of Leontino Balbo
1. The first thing we changed was people’s mindset regarding agriculture. In agribusiness, minds are often set to maximum profitability, with the farm being just a means of production. We wanted to set the focus on sustainability going hand in hand with profitability, and for people to see farming as a way of life. It really is a cultural change.
2. We eliminated cane burning. And since we did not have a machine to harvest green cane, we spent five years working to develop the first Brazilian green cane harvester!
3. All the workers who used to cut cane were re-trained and earned qualifications to take other positions in the new production program. None of them were dismissed, and their wages were raised significantly, thanks to their new higher qualifications.
4. We eliminated chemical fertilizers, replacing them with a unique Integrated Organic Fertilization Programme.
5. We eliminated pesticides and replaced them with integrated natural Pest and Disease management, which uses naturally resistant varieties, a biological control programme and cultural agricultural practices.
6. We successfully implemented a very ambitious and daring program called “Soil Physical Structure and Fertility Recovery”, along with three other programs: “Natural Resources and Biodiversity Recovery in Crop Land”, “Greenhouse Gas Emission Reduction” and “Production System Optimization”.
7. In terms of certifications, we have now 16,000 hectares of cane fields certified organic by the Instituto Biodinâmico (Brazil), ECOCERT (France), Doalnara (Korea) and JAS (Japan). We also meet other existing organic regulations, such as those set by the EU, the United States and many Asian countries. And we hold social-environmental certification from both Instituto Biodinâmico and the Rainforest Alliance.
8. At the same time as we started this project, our Group put together a comprehensive social programme aiming to achieve social promotion for workers and their families in the community. This social programme won the Brazil-United States Chamber of Commerce’s ECO Award.
(Photo from www.wbmnet.nl)