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Technology helps transform Brazilian agriculture

Following a remarkable production drive which has it become one of the world’s most important exporters, Brazil is looking to new technology to help continue its rise.

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Technology helps transform Brazilian agriculture

Brazilain agriculture has transformed itself from the 1970s, when it was a net importer of agricultural produce to become the key exporter it is today.

 

After realising the industry needed to tailor its technology to suit its tropical soils and bring regions into agriculture use which were thought unsuitable for crops, Brazilian production has soared.

 

Roberto Jaguaribe, president of Apex-Brasil, the Brazilian trade and investment promotion agency, said agriculture had undergone a revolution over the past 50 years.

 

“This is essentially related to technology and investment in technology,” he said.

 

Cerrado

 

“It is related to the ability to make use of the Cerrado region.”


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Until the 1970s, the Cerrado region, a tropical savannah, was mainly utilised for beef production, with the soils there not thought to be suitable for agricultural production.

 

The industry realised utilising European and US techniques and machinery was not working, but things changed when it started to treat its tropical soils differently.

 

It discovered the Cerrado could be made fit for cropping by appropriate additions of phosphorus and lime, boosting its usefulness for industrial crops such as soybeans.

 

“To be able to make use of soil which had been considered useless soil for agriculture for 500 years was game changing innovation,” Mr Jaguaribe said.

 

Now Brazil’s agritech sector is looking to continue to build this production and bolster the country’s position as a major player on the world market.

Integrated energy company Raizen, which works in a joint venture with Shell, is utilising sugar cane for ethanol, sugar and bioenergy.

 

The company has 860,000 hectares of cultivated land and is the largest integrated sugar producer in the world.

 

And it has utilised precision agriculture to streamline its farming process.

 

Now 99% of the harvest is mechanised. It also means traditional farming methods, such as burning back sugar cane plants, are no longer used and livestock are being brought back onto farm.

 

Raizen’s Ralph Hammer said they can manage the total crop area from the office.

 

He said: “It enables us to be very proactive in seeing problems and solving problems.”

 

Drones allow the climate to be monitored more accurately, as they are beneath the cloud level. The technology means they make all their decisions from the office rather than the field, and identify planting gaps and weed control requirements.

 

Machinery is also run on autopilot to make it as efficient and accurate as possible.

 

Head of innovation Raphaella Gomes said: “There will be a time when they need no driver. The technology is already more or less available.”

 

Biofuels

Rather than the push for electric cars which has been seen in Europe, Brazil has looked to reduce emissions by incorporating biofuels. With the expansion of production, there is no conflict between redirecting food crops.

 

Petrol and diesel in Brazil contain ethanol and biodiesel, providing farmers with additional markets and have been positive for meeting the country’s carbon targets.

 

Raizen has also launched the Pulse innovation hub as an incubator for start-up companies in the agritech sector. Start-ups, not the big agricultural firms, are the source of innovation in Brazil.

 

In Vale do Piracicaba, which has been described as the Silicon Valley of agriculture, Leonardo Menegatti, chief executive and founder of InCeres, a precision farming technology start-up, told a story about his father.

 

As an agronomy student, he had eagerly reported back to his father on the technological advances he had learned about at university, but his father had been reluctant to use these advances on farm, valuing experience instead.

 

Now, he has developed a web platform to ‘help farmers make decisions’ by utilising big data to recommend products and inputs, with analysis of their return on investment.

 

“The generation taking control are men who are 30 to 40 years old,” he said.

 

“We are accelerating this new generation. They are changing things, putting together experience and technology.”

Sustainability

Sustainability

Brazilian agricultural businesses are keen to emphasise the sustainability of Brazilian agriculture, and dispel myths about agriculture’s effect on the Amazon rainforest.

 

In 2013, the Government introduced a new Forest Code which it uses to show how sustainable its farming industry is.

 

Agriculture minister Blairo Maggi said the legislation requires landowners to preserve a percentage of their land.

 

He said: “For example, in the Amazon in Brazil, a land owner can only use 20 per cent of his land. It is mandatory to leave the rest as a reserve.”

 

It also introduced other measures, such as ensuring the margins around rivers on land were left. There was also a drive for integrated crop, livestock and forest systems.

 

Deforestation

 

He added the law and market practices had decreased deforestation because the companies which buy grains and livestock products cannot buy products if it comes from illegal land.

 

“This property cannot produce anything, he gets a fine and the company cannot trade it,” he said.

 

And Mr Maggi believes Brazil could continue to grow its production sustainably.

 

“We still have a nature reserve that is very big and we want to preserve it,” he added.

 

“We do not have any programme of harming the forest.

 

“Where can we do it? We are already doing it. It is integrating the model for agriculture, livestock and forestry. In the same area you have agriculture, you can have a reasonable number of animals. These animals are not confined.

 

“It is possible to have a soy harvest 45 days after you have pasture established. This pasture is fertilised by animals as well.”

Biotech

 

Biotech company Promip is looking to provide solutions to growers facing major challenges from pests.

 

Without a real winter in Brazil to kill them off, pests are a real problem for Brazilian farms.

 

Promip is looking at developing biological solutions which could help reduce the reliance on pesticides. They are also breeding pollinators such as stingless bees.

 

At their facility chief executive Dr. Marcelo Poletti showed the development of their products. Eggs and larvae were bred, grown into adults and pests studied to find effective solutions.

 

The insects produced were native species to Brazil which naturally fed on the insects which were causing problems.

 

Greenhouses

 

In greenhouses on the sites, the pests and predators are kept on plants. They are then packaged into a bottle, to be applied directly onto crops, or into cardboard boxes, which were placed in the soil.

 

“We are producing stingless bees for pollination,” he said.

 

“There are predator mites and wasps, for control of spider mites in vegetable crops.”

 

The products span smaller ‘specialist’ horticultural and vegetable crops, to large crops including sugarcane, corn and soybeans.

 

Dr Poletti highlighted the benefits with concerns over pesticides leaving residues in food, the banning of many pesticides by the European Union and other key markets and a safe, effective way to tackle pests.

 

“It is a more sustainable and inexpensive way of pest control,” he said.

Crop vaccines

Alex Black visited Brazil with the Brazilian trade and investment promotion agency Apex-Brasil, to visit the country’s thriving agritech sector.

Genica, a biotechnology, is looking to create a ‘vaccine’ for crops, utilising the soybean crops’ resistance to rust and reduce the use of fungicides.

 

Founding partner Fernando Reis said rust was hard things to manage in soybean and when the genes in the plant which fight off rust are activated, it is generally too late for the plant.

 

“We find the important genes and find a substance that, when we apply on the soybeans, the plant starts to have the reaction,” he said.

 

“It can reduce the use of fungicides, not totally, but reduce them.”

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