Brazil’s largest organic sugarcane grower has embraced regenerative agriculture practices to revitalise ecosystems, attain higher yields, and create an industrial farming model that functions as well as nature.
The executive vice-president of the Balbo Group, Leontino Balbo Junior, made the bet that restoring natural processes and modifying machinery in order to regenerate the ecosystem could revive ailing crops and land, as well as boost profitability.
Balbo joined the family business after his graduation as an Agronomist Engineer in 1986. He soon realised that the method of harvesting used at the time – which depended on burning sugarcane straw pre-harvest – was incompatible with the modern tropical agricultural techniques he had just learned. Those conventional methods focused primarily on crop extraction, inhibiting naturally-occurring features that are crucial to soil health and long-term resilience, such as mulch, humus and microbial and fungal networks.
He decided to pursue new methods for harvesting green cane. These methods showed a deeper understanding of the way natural systems work, emphasising the importance of feedback and supporting the soil’s ability to regenerate. The aim was to rebuild natural capital, rather than deplete it.
"We don’t worry too much about the crop itself - we take care of the whole ecosystem”
This ambition led Balbo to build a comprehensive and viable new production and harvesting system that he named Ecosystem Revitalization Agriculture (ERA). This initiative applies the principles of regenerative agriculture in conjunction with technical innovation to replicate the resilient, regenerative ecosystem of uncultivated land.
The group developed the first Brazilian cane harvester in partnership with a local manufacturer. The machine cuts cane into pieces and feeds them into a hopper where opposing currents of air strip off the leaves and spray them onto the ground, thereby returning 20 tonnes of previously unused organic material per hectare to the soil each year. This restores nutrients and forms a mulch that helps keep weeds down and prevents water evaporation.
To reduce dependency on expensive and potentially harmful artificial inputs, chemical fertilisers were replaced by a unique Integrated Organic Fertilisation Programme. Pesticides were exchanged for a natural pest and disease management system, which leverages naturally resistant crop varieties, a biological control programme, and cultural agricultural practices to inhibit pests and weeds.
Soil compression is another potential threat for soil vitality , as conventional farming equipment compacts earth and hampers aeration, water penetration and microbial health. Balbo Group devised a low-tech yet effective solution for this, using high flotation tyres which are partially deflated before vehicles are driven into the fields.
In an effort to valorise all material flows, a system to recycle organic by-products was put in place. The solid residue from juice filtration, the ash from the boilers, and the liquid residue left over after ethanol distillation, were all collected, applied back to the fields, and dry matter was fed directly into a furnace, producing 200 tonnes of steam per hour.
Beyond agricultural practices and technologies, the workers were trained and earned qualifications to take more highly skilled positions in the new production programme. Away from the farm, consumer awareness was raised through demos in supermarkets with animations showing customers the benefits of ERA.
Balbo didn’t see the improvements overnight. In fact, it took many years of iterations before the sugarcane grew stronger and ERA started to prove its worth. As Balbo explained in 2012: ‘At Native [the Balbo Group’s agricultural brand], our production system now achieves 20% higher productivity than conventional sugarcane 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!’ His story illustrates how businesses setting their sights on a circular economy will often need more than just resources and technical expertise: they’ll also need commitment to a vision and the belief that the journey will pay off.
Now, his business is thriving. Native produces 75,000 tonnes of organic sugar annually – 34% of the world market and a figure Balbo is planning to increase in line with demand – and 55,000m3 of organic ethanol each year from a crop of approximately 1.2 million tonnes of cane. His sugar is sold on five continents and used in over 100 high profile products. The Balbo Group produces 100% of the energy it needs to process around 6 million tonnes of sugarcane per year in thermoelectric power plants running on sugarcane bagasse (the pulpy residue left after the juice of the sugarcane has been extracted).
Beyond that, thanks to its investment in cutting-edge technology, Balbo has generated enough extra power to supply a city of 476,000 inhabitants. Indicators of sustainability have been defined with leading universities and research centres to assess the health of the soil on the farm, including its fertility and levels of water, air, and biodiversity, and they provide clear evidence that the agricultural activity is regenerative. Some measurements are less precise, but no less important: the farm has a level of biodiversity that’s over 50% of that found in Sao Paulo’s national parks, proving for Balbo that a thriving ecosystem and crop monoculture can coexist.
For the Balbo Group innovation is a continual process. Aiming to find a solution which can be widely used in agriculture, it has recently launched a project to construct a prototype of a 100% autonomous weed control robot. Balbo explains that: ‘This can avoid the use of pesticides not just in organic agriculture. The benefit for humankind and the planet could be enormous’. To disseminate ERA practices and technologies, a technology-transfer company, Agros Fortis, has been created, enabling farmers to pay to apply ERA practices and technologies to their land. According to Balbo: ‘I feel it is my duty to disclose this expertise, and I hope it will help apply our findings to other fields, other crops. I hope Native will be seen as an example of what can be achieved for the future, as living proof that anything is possible.’
A version of this case study first appeared in the report Achieving 'Growth Within', published by SystemIQ in collaboration with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and sponsored by SUN.