Stop the Burn Campaign Goes to Brazil

Stop the Burn Campaign Goes to Brazil

By Patrick Ferguson, Stop the Burn organizing representative

Billowing smoke, falling ash, heavy chemical fertilizer, and pesticide applications — these are some of the realities of large-scale sugarcane production here in Florida. But it doesn’t have to be that way. I had the opportunity to visit Brazil in June to tour the Native Green Cane Project, where pre-harvest sugar field burning and chemical fertilizer and pesticide applications were abandoned years ago and replaced with sustainable, organic production methods. I witnessed a completely different paradigm of sugarcane agriculture in action, one that works with nature rather than against it. I came back with a lot to share about how sugarcane should and can be grown in Florida.

Patrick with Fernando Vanzela of Native Brand with green harvesting in background

Patrick with Fernand Vanzela of Native Brand with green harvesting in background.

The Native Green Cane Project was started in 1986 by the Balbo Group, a family-owned company that grows sugarcane in the state of São Paulo, Brazil, under the Native Brand name. The project was the brainchild of Leontino Balbo Jr., Balbo Group executive vice president, whose vision led to the development of a revolutionary sugarcane production and harvesting method called Ecosystem Revitalization Agriculture (ERA). ERA at its core is about restoring soil health and biodiversity to replicate natural resilient and regenerative ecosystems where crops can thrive. This focus on strengthening the health of the surrounding ecosystem where their sugarcane is grown has created organic crops with 20% higher yields than conventional sugarcane without the use of any chemical fertilizers or pesticides.

Patrick Ferguson with Leontino Balbo Jr., founder of the Green Cane Project.
Transforming 'Trash' into Treasure

Over 30 years ago Balbo recognized that pre-harvest sugarcane burning wreaked havoc on the surrounding ecosystem: it ruined soils, destroyed animal habitats, and produced toxic air pollution. This inspired him to begin to use sugarcane leaves and tops (often referred to as "trash") to enrich the soil as mulch, rather than burning it off prior to harvesting, which is still the  practice in Florida. Native Brand farms accomplished this by making a custom-built mechanical sugarcane harvester designed to strip and blow the trash back onto the ground during the harvesting process. This method of harvesting puts 20 tons of trash per hectare back into the soil each year, restoring vital nutrients, especially nitrogen, blocking the growth of harmful weeds, and preventing soil erosion. Between 90 and 120 days after harvest, the trash (and its nutrients) are completely recycled back into the soils. The trash mulching itself became the bedrock of the Green Cane Project's success story.

Within five years of applying this method, the mulched trash began to generate new biodiversity and a healthier overall ecosystem, which translated into stronger, more resilient sugarcane crops. By the end of eight years, Native Brand's organic cane began to produce higher yields than nearby pre-harvest-burned conventional cane fields (that productivity turnaround time is now closer to as little as three years, due to the experience and knowledge gained using ERA farming methods). By 2007, the success of the Green Cane Project and the benefits of using sugarcane trash as mulch began to influence the entire Brazilian sugarcane industry when the Brazilian government and sugarcane industry partnered to enact the "Green Protocol." The Green Protocol was a long-term plan to phase out pre-harvest sugar field burning in Brazil and replace it with the type of green mechanical harvesting pioneered by the Green Cane Project. Now the vast majority of sugarcane is green harvested in Brazil; 97% all sugarcane grown in Native Brand's home state of São Paulo is green harvested. In Brazil, pre-harvest burning is considered a backward counter-productive agricultural practice.

Since then, many Brazilian sugarcane farms have begun using sugarcane trash in combination with sugarcane bagasse to generate more electricity and ethanol at their mills, but on Native Brand farms, the trash is viewed as far too important for its role in sustaining soil health to be removed for other uses. Native Brand's pioneering Green Cane Project is an exemplification of "one person's trash is another one's treasure."

No Compression, No Chemicals, No Problem 

Micro-wasps bred by Native Brand to combat sugarcane borers in lieu of chemical pesticide use on their farms
Micro-wasps bred by Native Brand to combat sugarcane borers in lieu of chemical pesticide use on their farms.
Native Brand tackled another modern agriculture problem, the soil compaction that damages soil aeration, microbial life, and lessens the soil's ability to retain water. By installing special low impact deflated tires on their harvesters and tractors, they protect their soils from the negative impacts of soil compaction. Native Brand also recognized that chemical fertilizers upset the natural chemical balance of agricultural soils. By using trash mulching and other organic sugarcane production byproducts like vinasse for fertilizer, they eliminated the need for chemical fertilizers, avoided the harmful environmental impacts, and restored the natural chemical balance of the soil. The restored health of the overall ecosystem produced crops more resilient to pests and disease. When needed, Native Brand utilizes biological pest control rather than chemical pest control; one example is the successful use of a micro-wasp breeding program which has proven more effective than chemical treatments at controlling sugarcane borer populations.

Growing Biodiversity Alongside Sugarcane 

Grey-necked Wood Rail in Native Brand sugarcane field  (Photo Credit: Native Brand)
Grey-necked Wood Rail in Native Brand sugarcane field (Photo Credit: Native Brand)

One of the unforeseen benefits of the Green Cane Project has been the explosion of biodiversity that has been recorded on Native Brand's farms. Research has shown their farms support 23 times more biodiversity than conventional sugar cane farms and 50% more biodiversity than a nearby national park in the state of São Paulo. Field surveys conducted on the Native Green Cane Project's fields and 11,000 acres of forests they maintain on their land as "biodiversity islands" have found over 340 species, including 49 endangered species. 

Both Sustainable and Profitable

The Green Cane Project's sugarcane cultivation and production is 100% carbon neutral, with soils that act as a carbon sink. In addition to supplying over a third of the world's supply of organic sugarcane and providing their own mulched trash soil amendments, they also produce bioethanol (including organic carbon-neutral ethanol), molasses, animal feed, bioplastics, as well as enough electricity to process over six million tons of sugarcane per year and  to power a city of more than 540,000 people. Balbo himself has been invited to speak in front of the United Nations about the success of the ERA farming method, and Native Brand has been declared a sustainability champion by the World Economic Forum. They have received over 16 certifications for quality assurance of their organic, sustainable, and socially responsible products.

Growing Healthy Communities and Employees Too 

The Balbo Group has also recognized the importance of taking care of its employees and the surrounding community. During the shift to mechanical green harvesting, no cane cutters were fired; instead, they were all retrained for other jobs on the farm or at the mills. Native Brand provides fair wages, housing, progressive medical, dental and preventative health care services, and employee training that goes well beyond what the Brazilian government requires employers to provide. Native Brand also supports over 200 community institutions annually including: local foster homes, schools, daycare centers, and many local environmental and recycling education initiatives. This commitment to their employees and the community makes Native Brand a champion in social and environmental sustainability.

Native Brand Farm in Sao Paulo, Brazil
Native Brand Farm in Sao Paulo, Brazil. 
Patrick, sugarcane trash in hand, on Native Brand Farm in Sao Paulo, Brazil.
For more information:

Green Cane Project video:

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