This article is brought to you by the Food Systems, Land Use and Restoration (FOLUR) Impact Program.
At FOLUR São Paulo 2023, the GLF’s Isabel Mesquita sat down with Sibelle de Andrade Silva, director of sustainable production at Brazil’s Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock, to discuss the state of agriculture in Brazil today, plans and policies for a greener future, and some of the challenges of developing a more sustainable agricultural sector.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity and was originally conducted in Portuguese.
Brazil is a major exporter of commodities, especially soy and cattle. Can you tell us a bit about the environmental challenges related to these industries in Brazil?
The main challenges as a major exporter of commodities relate to environmental issues and how we communicate and discuss them. We are very concerned with the discussion of food security – we need to produce more and more but also use less and less.
And today, we have one challenge that I consider a great opportunity, which is the restoration of degraded areas, mainly degraded pastures, because if we manage to restore them, we avoid pressurizing new forest areas. So, this is an important challenge, but also a great opportunity.
We also already have many sustainable practices. We know that there are problems; not all producers adopt sustainable practices, but many do, and we want to communicate those practices even better and expand their adoption through programs such as FOLUR and many others that we may have access to.
As you mentioned, there is a part of the agricultural sector that has good practices, and a part that still does not. Within the scope of the FOLUR program, how do you intend to engage more with the agribusinesses that have not yet adopted very sustainable practices?
We believe that one of the challenges for adoption lies in technical assistance. Through the FOLUR program and various other actions, we want to provide producers with assistance that is more technical. We have the National Rural Learning Service (SENAR), which is one of the partners of the FOLUR Child Project, and we want to increase awareness and technical assistance for producers, especially small- and medium-sized ones, who still don’t know about sustainable practices.
One thing that we note is that when producers adopt sustainable practices, they are not only benefiting the environment, but also increase their own income by improving the quality of the soil. By improving restorative actions, they slightly increase productivity.
So, we seek to overcome this issue through access to technical assistance for rural producers and leveraging this through the opportunities under this new government. For example, we have a low-carbon agriculture plan, which today we call the ABC+ Plan, and through it, we have a series of goals. One of them is the recovery of 30 million hectares of degraded pastures, but to do this, we need to provide technical assistance to the producer.
We need this funding, we need to access it, and we can access it through various state management committees. In Brazil, we must keep the public sector, private sector and municipal governments integrated so that the producer has access to the tools to learn about sustainable agriculture.
Sometimes, many people don’t adopt sustainable practices, not because they don’t want to, but because they don’t have the right tools – because they haven’t been connected with the right knowledge. So, for us, technical assistance is key.
What do you consider to be the main challenges you have faced since you started building the program? What are the challenges that will have to be addressed as you move forward with implementation?
We are in a very opportune new moment in which we are improving sustainable practices in agriculture. In the past, maybe we had some difficulties in communicating these practices well and in providing the necessary capillarity for sustainable agriculture in Brazil, but I believe that we are in a new phase, mainly working in partnership with the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change.
Moreover, climate change is the issue behind this whole question of sustainable agriculture. It is an issue that is being dealt with throughout the government today. Our Minister of Agriculture, Carlos Fávaro, and Minister of the Environment, Marina Silva, are deeply aligned on the challenge of climate change and, naturally, of increasingly sustainable agriculture.
So, beyond the challenges we’ve faced in the past, we are looking at a great opportunity today to put more sustainable practices on the table, address the challenges and seek mutual assistance, integrating food security but with full respect for the environment – we are seeking to make sustainable practices the rule in Brazil. We see this as a challenge, but also as an opportunity, because at the moment we see a very positive disposition and internal coordination in the government to do this.
Discussions around gender have recently been controversial in Brazil, but I know that it is one of the objectives of the program. So, could you tell us about the program’s gender strategy?
The program itself – more specifically, the Vertentes Project – has an important gender component that is to leverage and actually put equity into action. However, we have experience in other production chains that we want to adapt to soy and livestock, which are the focus of the FOLUR program. We have had very positive experiences integrating gender equality into the coffee chain – integrating women smallholders, who live in different parts of Brazil, and directing technical assistance at them. Technical assistance helps with the communication and sale of products from family farming, as well as from medium producers.
But we mainly want to take good practices from value chains where we have consolidated gender policies to soy and livestock through the FOLUR program. We are in an early stage of learning, but we want to take advantage of the good experiences of other production chains, such as coffee, which was very successful.
You mentioned coffee production. Are there other examples of sustainable practices whether in Brazil or abroad, that you are hoping to promote or replicate?
Yes, we have several examples, such as sustainable production technologies. In Brazil, we have examples of no-till farming systems implemented in several properties; the adoption of bio-based agriculture and eco farming, which are increasing in Brazil and makes the country a reference on the subject; and we also have systems that integrate crops, livestock and forestry.
With cattle farming, we already have practices such as terminação intensiva de pasto (intensive pasture termination) – which reduces greenhouse gas emissions and offers better management conditions – and the reuse of solid waste from animal husbandry. We have all of these sustainable production technologies that make up our public policy, which is the ABC+ Plan – an example that we want to amplify.
We have several properties that have adopted them, and I would like to highlight the integration of farming, livestock and forestry, which is extremely important. We recently learned about another production chain, which is cocoa, and I would like to mention it because it creates a space for us to talk about two very important topics, which are market creation and communication.
The cocoa supply chain, especially in the state of Pará, has historically had an average productivity of around 1,000 kilograms per hectare. If we go for an agroforestry system that preserves the forest, productivity is a little lower – sometimes around 300 to 400 kilograms per hectare. However, this productivity is highly valuable because it preserves the forest.
We want this product, which comes from a sustainable, regenerative production system that preserves the forest, to have greater value. We need to have a market space that makes it worth three, four or five times more than what is produced in the traditional system. Because if we create that market, the traditional system will start reforesting, it will start planting trees, and then we will be able to better communicate our sustainability.
This works not only for the Brazilian market but also for the export market. For that, we want to adopt traceability practices that allow us to guarantee to the consumer that the product originated in that agroforestry ecosystem.
It won’t just be the technology: we have several examples we want and need to expand, but we also need a market because the example that preserves the forest will have slightly lower productivity than non-conservation agriculture. It has to have more added value so that we can encourage this system to expand. Therefore, it is very important for us to reconcile technology, communication and the market.
To conclude, do you have any final thoughts or anything you would like to highlight?
I want to emphasize that on the side of agriculture and in synergy with the Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change, we have a maxim: it is absolutely possible to produce, conserve and preserve. We are not talking about antagonistic themes. We will need a lot of effort in public policy to put it into greater practice, but producing and conserving is our motto, and we want to see sustainable agriculture become the norm in Brazil.
So, the message I want to leave you with is that our Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock is committed not only to the FOLUR program but also to all the opportunities that we may have to make agriculture increasingly green, innovative and sustainable, in partnership with all other entities working in the environmental arena.