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Organic revolution

MONTIVIDIU (AFP) – Inspecting a thriving green field, Brazilian farmer Adriano Cruvinel is beaming: Using a fraction of the chemical products he used to, he is growing even more soy, thanks to natural pesticides.

Agricultural powerhouse Brazil may be the world leader in chemical pesticide use, but Cruvinel is part of a growing trend of farmers turning to natural products known as “biopesticides”.

“Our soy is doing great,” said the 36-year-old agricultural engineer, giving a tour of his 1,400-hectare farm in the central-western county of Montividiu, as combine harvesters work their way across a field.

“Thanks to the microorganisms we apply to the crop, it’s a lot more resistant to pests and disease.”

Brazil, the world’s biggest exporter of soy, corn and cotton, is also the top consumer of chemical pesticides: nearly 720,000 metric tonnes in 2021, or one-fifth of global sales, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization.

Seeking to improve his profits, in 2016 Cruvinel started transitioning toward so-called “regenerative” agriculture.

The technique seeks to restore the soil’s biodiversity, replacing chemical fertilisers and pesticides with natural alternatives.

ABOVE & BELOW: A soybean plot at Bom Jardim Lagoano farm in the municipality of Montividiu, Goias state, Brazil; and agronomist Adriano Cruvinel supervises the soybean harvest. PHOTO: AFP
ABOVE & BELOW: Cruvinel inspects a soybean plant; and works in the biofactory where he produces and stores his organic products at the Bom Jardim Lagoano farm. PHOTO: AFP
ABOVE & BELOW: Cruvinel holds one of his works; and moths and insects damaging to crops are trapped in a device that uses natural attractants. PHOTO: AFP
Cruvinel inspects the soybean plantation. PHOTO: AFP

He still uses genetically modified soy, widespread in Brazil. But near those fields he built an ultra-modern laboratory and factory.

Inside, refrigerators conserve fungi and bacteria, some harvested from forestland on his farm.

He cultivates them en masse in vats, then uses them to treat his fields.

“Here, we imitate nature on a giant scale,” said Cruvinel, who has replaced 76 per cent of the chemical pesticides he formerly used with natural products.

The approach is good for health and the environment, but also business: His production costs have fallen by 61 per cent, while his soy yields have risen by 13 per cent, he said.

Natural pesticides “could revolutionise Brazilian and global agriculture”, said researcher Marcos Rodrigues de Faria at Embrapa, Brazil’s public agricultural research agency. But “there’s a long way to go”, he added.

Brazil still relies heavily on chemical pesticides, known here as “agrotoxicos”, or “agri-toxic” products.

Natural products grew from four per cent of total pesticide sales in Brazil in 2020 to nine per cent in 2022.

Their use has expanded four times faster in Brazil than internationally, said Amalia Borsari, of CropLife Brasil, an organisation representing the agricultural chemicals industry.

“There has been exponential growth,” she said.

Geographer Larissa Bombardi, an expert on pesticide use in Brazil, calls the trend “interesting”.

But she said it is not yet changing Brazil’s dominant model of massive, land-intensive mono-crop agriculture, which leaves little room for small-scale producers or more environmentally friendly practices.

“The surface area of land under cultivation in Brazil increased by 29 per cent from 2010 to 2019, while pesticide use increased by 78 per cent,” she said.

The agribusiness sector accounts for nearly a quarter of Latin America’s biggest economy, making the pesticide debate politically charged.

After a long standoff with Congress, where agribusiness interests are a powerful force, President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva signed a bill into law in December softening regulations on agricultural chemicals.

The veteran leftist used his line-item veto to block some controversial aspects of the bill. But the final text significantly lowered the bar for regulatory approval of new pesticides, drawing scathing criticism from environmentalists.

Chemicals that can cause cancer and mutations or harm the environment are no longer automatically banned – only those found to represent an “unacceptable risk”.

Bombardi calls the law a “tragedy” and “a gift to the agribusiness and agricultural chemicals industries”.

The stakes go beyond Brazil.

The country’s massive use of pesticides is one of the main objections voiced by opponents of a landmark trade deal between the European Union and South American bloc Mercosur, in which Brazil is the biggest player.