Le bio régénératif peut nourrir le monde
Au Brésil, Pedro Paulo Diniz a transformé une ferme familiale, avec une production conventionnelle, en un site dédié à l’agriculture biologique régénérative. Aujourd’hui, sa société, nommée Rizoma Agro, développe des pratiques d’agriculture biologique et construit des réseaux et des partenariats pour une agriculture régénérative à grande échelle à travers tout le Brésil. Une initiative prouvant qu’il est possible d’être rentable tout en respectant la nature.
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Pedro Paulo Diniz is a former racecar driver and CEO of Rizoma Agro, a spin-off from Fazenda da Toca (also founded by him), a model for large-scale sustainable agriculture and the largest organic eggs producer in Brazil. Since 2008, Pedro and his teams at Rizoma and Toca have developed organic farming practices and built networks and partnerships, or the groundwork for large-scale regenerative agriculture in Brazil.
This is a feature of the Presencing Institute’s “Dialogue on Soil and Society,” a compilation of interviews that frame agriculture as a critical area for curbing climate change and spurring societal transformation. The goal of the series is to identify promising place-based projects and systemic interventions to support sustainable, just, and reciprocal food economies. In January and April 2020, Presencing Institute staff sat down with Pedro for a conversation about the history of Toca and Rizoma and its potential in transforming agriculture and land systems in Brazil and beyond.
One of the most hopeful findings from this interview was that over a period of time, Rizoma’s citrus agroforestry systems can offset up to 50 tons of carbon per hectare and Rizoma’s organic grains offset up to 8 tons of carbon per hectare. Imaflora, a reputable Brazilian think-tank dedicated to environmental research, conducted a study from 2018–2019 and found that the soil of the corn and soy crops in Rizoma’s farms are sequestering 1.9 tons of carbon per hectare per year, while the average carbon balance of conventional corn and soy crops worldwide is 6.2 tons of carbon emitted per hectare per year. In other words, Rizoma’s grain production can offset a total 8.1 tons of carbon per hectare annually.
At a recent impact investing event in Rio, the amount of carbon dioxide sequestered per hectare on Rizoma’s farms during a year was extrapolated to global agricultural land.
The projection revealed that if global soy, corn, fruit and cattle production were farmed with Rizoma’s regenerative organic grains, agroforestry and silvopasture systems, they would offset 46 percent of the CO2 produced by humans in one year.
Tell us about your background. How did you arrive at your current work?
I got into agriculture in 2003 or 2004. I’m passionate about sustainability, and I worry about the climate crisis. My family’s farm, Fazenda da Toca, was founded in 2008, and at that stage, it was a 1,400-hectare farm in the State of Sao Paulo. My grandfather bought the farm in 1970, the year I was born, so it has been in our family for 50 years.
My father was not really into agriculture, and by 2008, the farm was only doing conventional agriculture just to keep itself running. Because of that, he asked me to see what we could do on the farm to improve it as a business. I was already interested in organic agriculture at that point, which led me to better understand how we could be sustainable on the farm. In the end, it was evident that organic agriculture was an essential part of changing the way we farm.
It was a big journey for me. In 2010, I decided to move to the farm, where I lived for seven years. It was a lovely journey because I began to have a closer relationship with nature and to deeply understand how nature works and systemically operates. It was vital for me to understand agriculture in a way that makes sense to me.
At first, we didn’t have much on the farm. We had conventional citrus production. We now have developed an ambitious project of producing organic milk, organic eggs, as well as all tropical fruits. We have learned so much about how nature operates. We learned that it doesn’t make any sense to fight nature by trying to dominate it.
On this journey, it became apparent for me that if we can team up with nature and cooperate with it, the results are much better. With tropical fruit, especially limes, we developed agroforestry systems, which mimic nature and tropical forests. And it’s nice to see what we have created here: a food forest that’s very productive with almost zero outside input. For example, if you’re taking a traditional citrus production, a wide range of pesticides is used for pest control. So all of these toxins are actually sterilizing nature, both the good and the bad things. If you can collaborate with nature, it works 24 hours, seven days a week for you. It can work for you for free.
This kind of agriculture also presents challenges because not many people are doing it, and as of now, it’s mostly small-scale. For me, I think the most important thing was this journey of getting closer to nature and understanding how it works. By doing that, it was much easier for me to create and think about how to develop productive systems. For three years, I’ve had the privilege of working with Ernst Götsch, who is a consultant in agroforestry. Our challenge is to do it large-scale, and this is what I’m concentrating on right now.
Timeline of Toca and Rizoma
- 1970: Acquisition of the Fazenda da Toca, a farm
- 2003–2004: Pedro deepens interest and dedication to sustainability and climate change
- 2008: Creation of Toca as a way to promote organic, regenerative, and sustainable agriculture
- 2010: Started the production of organic milk, organic eggs, tropical fruits. Initially, there were three factories that created milk, juice, and eggs
- 2016: Simplification of the process to focus on organic egg production only. Results led to a growth of 8 times of the original production and covering 50% of Brazil’s national organic egg production
- 2017: Creation of Rizoma Agro. Rizoma was created to accelerate the transition to regenerative organic agriculture by creating an efficient supply chain. Rizoma offers Regenerative Organic as-a-service. Rizoma assists the farmer in all aspects of production, including crop planning and monitoring, certifications, traceability, and contracts. Rizoma targets a specific profile of partners: large-scale farmers, with over 1,000 hectares of land, in the Cerrado region. Cerrado is Brazil’s main grain-growing biome and is home to over 30,000 large-scale farmers. Rizoma’s business model has allowed for the creation of an extensive network, as the model can be tailored to farmers’ particular needs. By the second harvest, many of these farmers noted similar or better results compared to traditional agriculture, growth in biodiversity, and a doubling of profits.
Rizoma aims to work with a specific profile of partners: large-scale farmers, with over 1,000 hectares of land, in the Cerrado region. Cerrado is Brazil’s main grain-growing biome and is home to over 30,000 large-scale farmers. Rizoma’s business model has allowed for the creation of an extensive network, as the model can be tailored to farmers’ particular needs. By the second harvest, many of these farmers noted similar or better results compared to traditional agriculture, growth in biodiversity, and a doubling of profits.
What are some of the key successes and learnings for you and your organization?
There are not many people doing what we’re doing, trying to do regenerative organic agriculture on a large-scale. When we started here on the farm, we had a very ambitious project. We had three factories: one for milk, one for juice production, and one for eggs. And that was very complex. We had the whole process of agriculture production on a large-scale: regenerative and organic agroforestry, grain production for the chickens, and the entire cow process for milk. A valuable lesson was trying to simplify things. We sold all the factories that we had, the milk factory and juice factory. We decided to concentrate on the agriculture side.
That was that critical decision that made us concentrate on what I think is an essential element of creating regenerative organic agriculture on a larger scale. Since then, at Fazenda da Toca, the results have gotten much better. I’m thrilled to say now that Fazenda da Toca is a great business. We concentrate on organic eggs and also produce organic milk with a partner. Since we decided to simplify our process in 2016, we are almost eight times bigger, only doing organic eggs. We have nearly 50% of the Brazilian market of organic eggs. So we have grown quite a lot.
In researching agriculture in Brazil, we discovered that the country has 280 million hectares dedicated to agriculture. From these 280 million hectares, 170 million are pasture land for cows, and 40 million hectares are for grains, especially soy and corn. We’re left with 70 million hectares dedicated to fruits and sugarcane. For reference, our citrus production corresponds to 600,000 hectares, which, compared to the 280 million, is not that much. Considering that we are a purpose-driven company, we started to think about how we could impact those 280 million hectares with large-scale solutions.
While traveling around Brazil, we saw a lot of vast farms that were very well-operated businesses, but with conventional systems. It’s very chemical-intense, and it worries me to see a farm of 100,000 hectares in this condition. We visited one farm like this in the Amazon biome and couldn’t see even one bird. It’s disturbing.
So we wanted to create a solution for these farms. That’s when we immersed ourselves in studying how to do regenerative organic agriculture in grains. That’s our main operation right now. We also prototyped a system for meat, which is interesting since it’s an enormous activity in Brazil. There are ways to do silvopasture that have a fantastic carbon-negative effect while also regenerating the land by rotating the animals’ placement.
Unfortunately, this is not obvious for the market, so we decided to begin with grains, which is what we are currently doing. We have two farms producing large-scale regenerative organic grains, mainly corn, soybeans, chickpeas, and peas.
We’re on the second harvest. We’re thrilled because we’re already seeing productivity similar to, and sometimes even higher than, conventional produce. We measure the carbon sequestration and regeneration in biodiversity on all our operations because there was a question of whether we could do a large-scale operation with grains while retaining positive outcomes on both aspects.
So, if the question is whether or not we can do a large-scale operation in grains while sequestering carbon, the answer is yes. We’ve been offsetting 8.1 tons of carbon per hectare per year. Biodiversity is also improving since it all starts with healthy soil, working as a “placenta” of the planet, where all life begins.
We have created this protocol for productions, with our eleven years track record of doing research and development on regenerative organic agriculture, which is working wonderfully. We approach the farmers by offering services such as a food service protocol, technical assistance, commercial, and logistics. We don’t buy from these farmers. We bring them to the final client, so they have all upsides up with that. It’s a win-win partnership, and we’re having a lot of success in implementing it.
These farmers usually own significant pieces of land. We currently have five million partner farmers, but only 51,000 of them own properties bigger than 1,000 hectares. We’ve decided to start partnerships with more prominent farmers, intending to create a big network of farms. They understand our intentions and are outstanding business people.
Eventually, our second step will be going to add family farming and small-scale agriculture. This category has the advantage of being a more natural model for implementing our protocol while also being more diversified. The only downside is that the implementation will be slower.
Why are we not seeing more large-scale regenerative projects in Brazil or other countries?
That’s an excellent question. I believe a similar analogy can be made with electric cars. Why couldn’t we see more electric cars before Tesla? For me, it’s a question of someone taking the initiative to begin large-scale production of them, with adequate infrastructure. That is precisely what I feel like we’re doing with these farmers. We’re creating a large-scale operation while also giving them the support to join us.
The difference is that we decided to create partnerships and get all of these farmers on board for a new way of doing agriculture. And, due to our strategy, we think the implementation is going to be swift. This is what I hope for since my personal goal is to regenerate as much land as possible, as fast as I can.
Also, we must undo myths about industrial agriculture. For example, we can feed the world with regenerative organic agriculture. The results speak for themselves: this year alone, we had higher corn yields compared to conventional agriculture corn. We had areas with more than 180 bushels, which is enormous.
The first thing people say is “okay, organic agriculture is nice, good for the environment, healthier, but you cannot feed the world with it.” I’ve heard that for a long time, to which I’ve always said, “I don’t think that’s true.” And now I can prove it.
All the years of operating on a smaller scale in Fazenda da Toca, and now on large-scale with Rizoma, prove that yields can be even higher than conventional agriculture. And that’s only the second year of R&D that we are doing. Our production costs have decreased substantially, now being only 20% in corn, and we’ll be closing this gap rapidly.
We now have research to back up our results. There is a center in the U.S. called Rodale Institute. They conducted a 30-year trial of comparisons between conventional and organic agriculture, concluding that yields can be similar or better. That goes to show what we’ve been seeing on a large-scale now. So, yes, we can feed the world with regenerative organic agriculture, while also having all of its fantastic impacts.
Regarding carbon sequestration, it’s a highly technical aspect of our work. We have a partnership with Wageningen University (Netherlands) since they specialize in that. I believe it was two months ago that we hosted Rachel Creamer, one of their top scientists, for two days. We had an extensive workshop on soil carbon sequestration and its potential. We then understood the complexity of the subject. In simple terms, it is possible to sequester a significant amount of carbon, and some of it will stay in-ground. This is excellent news and should be enough reason to practice organic regenerative agriculture. Still, we lack a consensus on the exact amount, its perennity, and how stable it is.
So the potential is enormous. Still, there is a lot of discussion on the stability of this carbon and whether it will stay in the ground. But even if you take the worst projections, it’ll still have positive results. Carbon will always be sequestered, and it’s still a considerable potential.
I met with a big investor in Rio de Janeiro back at the beginning of the year. We assembled the team and said: “Listen, guys, take the amount of carbon we sequestered last year and compare that to the whole of agriculture, globally. Let’s see the numbers.” And we presented the numbers we came up with during that event. The impact of carbon sequestration in fruits is much higher. Still, if we take global corn, soy, fruits, and cattle production, for instance, we could offset 46% of human emissions per year with regenerative organic systems. That goes to show the enormous potential that it has. It might not be stable for 100 years, but the potential is certainly there.
What are the main opportunities and barriers in financing regenerative agriculture?
That’s a challenge, and that’s precisely our challenge right now. After all, we need capital to make Rizoma grow. Not only that, but we also have to invest in infrastructures, such as silos and logistics, to enable this network to thrive. We have been in the process of raising capital since the end of last year. Due to the economic crisis that we are currently facing, it’s a problem for us right now. We have to find different approaches, make small investments, and reduce our land usage to see how we can better accommodate.
We have been in contact with many investment funds, but they’ve halted financial aid for now. Our current mission is to build a solid case with the results we have got so far. We have a company with more than 50 employees, concentrated in R&D. We created a carbon and biodiversity feedback protocol based on research to show our impact.
Everything is very well-structured, but this crisis will probably delay our work. That’s our biggest challenge right now. Even so, we remain positive, since we see significant interest in our work coming from farmers and loads of data to show our results. We only need a small sum of investments, and we are positive that we will come up with a solution for that.
The only way to profit from regenerative agriculture is to capitalize on carbon credits right now. We’re going to be able to do it somehow, given our positive impacts. Our current model provides around $5 on credits per ton of carbon, which is still low. But I’m still positive that this will grow, and it’ll be able to aid our finances in this time of transition.
As for the current crisis, I believe it’s a massive opportunity for humanity to implement a new model of society: one that thinks about how to regenerate, instead of destroy, our planet. It is something we so sorely need. I hope that this crisis serves as a seed for a new society with a more respectful approach to our planet.
Moreover, I hope that our positive impacts, which are not highly valued right now, quickly begin to acquire more value.
Where do you see your work in five years?
I hope that in five years, Rizoma Agro will expand and successfully create a network able to impact many hectares. Our business plan has the goal of impacting 300,000 hectares in 10 years, but I hope we can achieve it in five. With the right investments, we can safely get there, without any of the dangers that affect these big farms. Our infrastructure might be a bottleneck for us, though.
Also, the social problems caused by the current crisis might represent a tremendous opportunity for Rizoma Agro. We have 13 million people in Brazil living below the line of poverty, in slums, mostly. These are the people that will be most affected by the health issues of the COVID-19 pandemic, with a low income and poor living conditions. On the other hand, we have an average of 80 million hectares of degraded land, which means that this land was deforested and is no longer productive. If we could relocate these people and give them more than one hectare of the 80 million that are available, it would be a fantastic project to work on.
It makes sense to me since I’ve worked closely with these people in the past. They are sort of refugees from rural areas. These people fled from dire conditions in order to try and find better opportunities in urban areas. Relocate these people to the land that was once theirs, and provide them with a clear path towards producing organics while regenerating the land. It’s my dream, and I hope to achieve it someday.
It’s not my current project, but rather something that is on my mind, and that makes a lot of sense to a lot of people. Hopefully, we’ll be seeing that someday. Let’s hope that in five years we’ll be seeing some seed of it. Finally, I believe that this crisis may speed up these processes.
I believe we must persevere on the large scale model that we’ve been working on for so long. In our experience, this is the best way to create engagement in people. It’s like my previous Tesla example. You have to have people taking the initiative. And I’m not only talking about me, but many people are doing the same thing in the U.S. and Europe. This is the change that I hope to see in five years.
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