Chat: Daniela Mariuzzo and Ricardo Arioli talk about reputation, commitments and perspectives of agribusiness

Daniela Mariuzzo, IDH Brazil Executive Director & Latam Landscapes Program Director, spoke to Ricardo Arioli about the current moment and the prospects for the future of the farming sector.

Ricardo Arioli Silva has been an agricultural engineer and a soybean, corn, sunflower, and beef cattle farmer, in a crop-livestock integration system, in the municipality of Campo Novo do Parecis-MT, since 1987. He has led several projects related to sustainability, lectured at World Conferences on Climate (COP), and led Farmers’ Entities and Associations. In its path, there have been achievements such as the Memoranda of Understanding signed by the Mato Grosso State Soybean and Corn Farmers Association (Aprosoja) with the Chinese and the Europeans, under which the Soy Plus Program was recognized as the sustainable soy passport for these markets. Currently, by indication of the Mato Grosso State Federation of Agriculture and Livestock (Famato), he holds the position of President of the Grain, Fibre and Oilseed Commission in the Brazilian Confederation of Agriculture and Livestock (CNA).

Check out the main points of this conversation below!

DM: How do you assess the current moment of the Brazilian agribusiness in terms of internal and external reputation?

RA: It depends a lot on who evaluates it. Brazil has become a reliable supplier of various products during the pandemic, and this certainly helps Brazilian products in the medium and long term. From a sustainability perspective, farmers feel that there is exaggerated pressure from some NGOs, not from markets, on our production. While we have one of the most restrictive laws in the world, in terms of environmental preservation within properties, any environmental problem that arises, even if distant from farmers, ends up reflecting on purchasing restrictions threats. Fires in the Amazon and Pantanal occur during the dry season every year. Just as there are forest fires in California, Europe, and Australia, for example. If there are arson attacks aiming at illegal deforestation, this has to be punished. Farmers do not burn anything on their properties. Burning grazing land on a cattle ranch, just in the dry season, is a sure loss. Burning the haystack accumulated over several years of no-till farming is equally damaging. So, it’s hard to understand and accept why soy and meat have to undergo market restrictions because of the illegal practices for which we are not responsible. These constant international attacks on the reputation of Brazilian agribusiness are senseless. They will end up punishing those who are doing it right.

DM: Regarding this communication, do you feel that the situation is too critical, or is there room for a positive agenda?

RA: There is always room for a Positive Agenda. I see the immense prominence of NGOs in raising doubts and making derogatory statements about Brazilian agribusiness abroad. I don’t see the same effort when it comes to sharing the countless positive actions we have taken in recent years regarding environmental protection and sustainable production. This attitude pushes farmers away from international environmental agendas in a forced manner – albeit without much knowledge about Brazilian agriculture. With farmers off the negotiation table and out of the propositional actions, even the well-intentioned ones, results become more difficult to be achieved. The various stakeholders keep pulling to different sides, without results. I have said that Brazilian farmers are among the very few who have done something different and positive to defend the environment in the world. We have accepted a New Forest Code, which requires the maintenance of private environmental protection areas within the properties at the farmers’ own cost. We are developing no-till farming, second crop, and Crop-Livestock-Forest Integration. It’s a lot when compared to other farmers worldwide. That means, we have our own positive agendas. To return to the Multi stakeholders’ Positive Agendas, we will first need the other stakeholders to leave these accusatory ranks aside and begin a phase of recognition of our efforts. That way, we can work together again.

DM: Do you think that the soybean sector has adequately followed/responded to the challenges that consumer markets have been demanding in recent years?

RA: Certainly. The soybean produced in Brazil is one of the most sustainable in the world. We use state-of-the-art technologies, many of which have been developed in Brazil, for our tropical climate. We have Legal Reserves and Permanent Preservation Areas as carbon stocks, protection for biodiversity, and waters. We use integrated pest management, which considerably reduces pesticide applications. Brazil is the world champion in agrochemical packaging recycling, with more than 90% of triple packaging washed and returned at collection centres. Mato Grosso is the Brazilian champion. We use no-till farming, succession planting, and soil coverage. We are starting to use biological pesticides, some of which produced on-farm. We use inoculation and co-inoculation, which reduces the use of nitrogen fertilizers, one of the largest generators of greenhouse gases. Crop and Livestock Integration brings the cattle to the grain-producing properties, where they are finished, during the dry season, thereby reducing fattening time and avoiding the need to open new areas for livestock. Farms have increasingly understood and complied with almost 300 health and safety rules at work. Corn ethanol plants, which are being built in Mato Grosso and other Midwest states, use the corn produced in the second harvest, planted after soybeans, and they will need the planted forests to generate the energy they use in their operations.

DM: According to you, what else is more pressing in this industry in terms of challenges to be overcome and commitments to be made?

RA: In my opinion, the greatest challenge is to maintain the farmers’ profitability, so that they can continue investing in sustainability. With the global crisis brought on by this pandemic, many governments are struggling and view agribusiness as a source of more tax collection. This could be a mistake, because besides reducing our competitiveness, the taxes turn into cost and that ends up on supermarket shelves, in the consumer’s pocket. Higher prices reduce consumption. Reduced consumption decreases collection. It is a negative spiral. We have to think about the positive spiral. Lower tax rates on primary products lead to cheaper products and increased consumption. It increases the purchasing power, without having to increase wages. Higher consumption, higher collection. This is very basic, but many government leaders do not understand it that way and are lured into taking the false “shortcut” to increase tax burden.

DM: Talking about improving the relationship between sustainability and income, do farmers still believe in Payment for Environmental Services? How is this issue being addressed within the CNA?

RA: It is hard to believe in Payment for Environmental Services (PSA, in its acronym in Portuguese). It’s just like caviar, in Zeca Pagodinho’s song: I’ve never seen or eaten it, I just hear about it. Brazil is prepared for whatever criteria and measurement required to receive these payments. Mato Grosso, for instance, has already got one billion tons of avoided deforestation carbon, REDD, certified by the Ministry of Environment, awaiting buyers, who never turn up. We have a very sustainable energy matrix, with hydroelectric plants instead of coal. We have biofuels, ethanol from sugarcane, and now from corn. We have Legal Reserves and Permanent Preservation Areas. None of this is acknowledged. I believe that national initiatives, such as Renovabio, will be the market with which we will have to settle. Another hope for PSA, which would be indirect, could be the arrival of those Green Funds, with reduced interest rates, based on environmental assets.

DM: About Mato Grosso, there is a long-term multisectoral strategy, with goals for production, conservation, and inclusion. What do you think about the impact of this agenda on the development of the state?

RA: The PCI Agenda was very well structured. However, the lack of funding for Payments for Environmental Services is holding back the development of this agenda. The values to be applied in projects are insignificant in relation to the state’s potentials. We are always waiting for significant funds, coming from countries that want to contribute to conservation. But, as it seems, this is an agenda of endless conversations and postponements. Now, with the global crisis brought by the pandemic, I believe that PSA and voluntary contributions to the PCI will get much more difficult.