Brazil’s Cerrado region is a vast expanse of savannah and woodland that once covered an area larger than Mexico. In the last 50 years, around half the Cerrado’s natural ecosystems have been lost, mostly to agriculture – and in recent years, one of the key drivers of this has been soy.
This agricultural expansion has turned Brazil from a net food importer into one of the world’s biggest food providers, bringing economic and social benefits. But there are costs too. The march of large monocultures threatens the Cerrado’s exceptional biodiversity, home to a third of the species in Brazil and over 5% of all the species in the world. Because the Cerrado is a hugely important water catchment area, soil degradation, erosion and run-off from industrial agriculture affect water supplies for millions of people.
In the state of Minas Gerais, Lucas Aernouldts (right with RTRS President Jaap Oskam) seeks to farm in a way that doesn’t diminish the Cerrado’s natural riches.
The main crops on his farm, which employs 150 people, are carrots and garlic, but 320 hectares are planted with soy, producing nearly 1,200 tonnes per year which is bought by the likes of Cargill. The farm also includes a conservation area for natural vegetation.
“It’s a matter of working in harmony with nature,” Lucas says. This includes practising no-till agriculture, which leaves the top layer of soil undisturbed. This can improve soil quality and carbon levels, prevent erosion and reduce the need for chemical inputs. It also increases the variety of wildlife below and above the ground, from earthworms and beneficial insects to nesting birds.
The high environmental and labour standards on Lucas’s farm were recognised with RTRS certification in 2011. The farm was one of the first to be certified as a result of support from APDC [the Cerrado no-till agriculture association] and the Soy Producer Support Initiative (SOYPSI), a project run by Solidaridad and RTRS which supports smaller farmers to achieve certification.
“The farm was already functioning at a high level, but now the buyer knows our soy was produced under good conditions,” says Lucas. “It’s a plus to sell – RTRS-certified soy is positively seen by the buyers.”