Large-scale regenerative agriculture is possible – and profitable, says Rizoma
Soil, agriculture and the impact on climate change are increasingly coming into the spotlight.
According to 2014 data from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the agriculture sector is the second biggest emitter of carbon, just behind energy. Rizoma is a regenerative agriculture production company trying to transform the farming sector and make it part of the solution rather than the problem.
FoodNavigator-LATAM caught up with the company's three co-founders, Fábio Sakamoto, Marcelo Marzola, and Pedro Paulo Diniz, to find out more.
“Regenerative builds on the awareness brought into context by sustainable and organic farming and take it to the next level,” said Marzola. “While most models prior to regenerative aimed at mitigating the negative impacts of farming, in the regenerative framework, ‘sustaining’ is not enough.
Rizoma’s integrated farming systems recover degraded lands, sequester carbon from the atmosphere, optimize the water cycle and restore soil biodiversity. According to the start-up, by reducing costs through fewer inputs and allowing farmers to diversify revenue by rotating different crops and livestock, regenerative agriculture offers strong financial returns.
One million hectares by 2030
It has itself the goal of regenerating one million hectares land in Brazil by 2030.
“Ultimately [we need to] leave the planet in a better condition than it was before farming was there,” added Marzola.
Rizoma is a young company – it was founded in February 2018 as a privately-funded start-up, seeded with around US$8 million – but is a spin-off of Fazenda da Toca, the largest organic egg producer in Brazil.
It currently has two pilot farms that together cover more than 1,500 hectares of regenerative agriculture operating both integrated agroforestry and silvopasture intensive systems.
The farms are located in the São Paulo region, a strategic choice that puts it close to some of Brazil’s biggest agricultural research institutions. These farms have allowed Rizoma to trial and validate ‘production prototypes’, that will be open-source and accessible to farmers worldwide, further driving uptake of sustainable farming, said Sakamoto.
On the first farm, Toca, located in Itirapina, Rizoma grows lemon, corn, and manioc. On the second farm, Takaoka, it grows corn, organic and non-GMO soy and rears organic livestock (it has around 1,250 heads of cattle) using intensive silvopasture, crop-livestock integration and rotated pasture systems.
Making sustainable profitable
“The key to making regenerative agriculture profitable is to structure and integrate the value chain end-to-end, which is exactly what we are doing,” Marzola said.
“We are joining forces with market leaders to overcome the bottlenecks that limit further growth and reach of regenerative production and we are counting on these partners to help transform the value chain.”
Its model is already showing signs of success; its 2018/2019 harvest has already been sold and the company is now looking at scaling up.
It is also fostering academic partnerships, including with Wageningen University in the Netherlands, and hosting agronomy students from around the world.
Big in Brazil?
One hurdle it has faced, however, is getting the entire value chain to move forward together.
“Producers will not produce regeneratively because they say the demand from food companies is not there, and food companies will not start regenerative product lines because they say sourcing regenerative ingredients consistently is a challenge – a classic chicken and egg problem, pun intended,” said Marzola.
Accessing the right financial resources was another. “The truth is that in farming the establishment favors the continuation of existing practices," he added.
Does that mean regenerative agriculture is a difficult sell in Brazil?
Large-scale farmers in Brazil have been suffering from expensive inputs, bad weather, and competition, according to the company, and so the increased resiliency of regenerative agriculture is “turning heads and increasing curiosity”, said Diniz.
“But of course, no producer will migrate from a conventional model to a 100% regenerative organic model without having a proof that the model is viable – and that is exactly where Rizoma’s work could play an important role.”
It is still too early for the company to give figures for return-on-investment but it said its data initially shows that regenerative agriculture can outperform conventional farming three-fold when comparing contribution margin/hectare.
“Yields are not necessarily higher but the more attractive premiums on organic crops help defend these rates of return,” added Sakamoto.
A science-based approach
The company now has a team of around 50, including staff who previously worked at biotech and GM giant Syngenta.
Diniz believes it is this openness that has helped it build a disruptive business.
“We believe there is a lot to be learned from all companies who have been working to advance agriculture. Furthermore, we believe in moving away from polarizing and prejudicial labeling and building bridges to connect positive efforts,” he said, adding that the company is open to having discussions with “any entities that are transparent and willing to engage in rigorous scientific debate”.
Big Food and regenerative agriculture
French dairy giant Danone says it intends to “sharpen” its focus on regenerative agriculture as a way to “broadly reduce emissions” in the future.
General Mills says it is embracing regenerative agriculture through a series of sourcing partnerships and investments.
US meat brand Applegate Farms, owned by Hormel Foods, launched a range of meat products produced according to sustainable practices, with the company’s president saying it was making “a big bet on regenerative agriculture”.
Last year, the Rodale Institute in the US launched a certification scheme, Regenerative Organic Certified, for manufacturers to use. It said that if current cropland and pastureland used regenerative organic practices, 100% of annual global CO2 emissions could be sequestered in the soil.