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Cattle muddy Brazil’s path to sustainable farming

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Three years ago, SLC Agrícola took a punt on a technology that integrated infrared cameras into its machinery for spraying herbicide on its vast soya, cotton and corn plantations.

Immediately, the results were clear. The cameras were able to detect weeds, which could then be killed with a precision dose of herbicide, eliminating the need for the kind of mass spraying that is ubiquitous in large-scale agriculture. With the new technology, the company’s use of herbicide dropped 85 per cent, reducing costs and making its products more appealing to consumers.

“It is a very efficient way to save chemicals, but more importantly to apply those chemicals only where they are needed — to apply directly,” says Aurélio Pavinato, SLC’s chief executive.

“We started with one machine, then two years ago we bought two more and then another 10. All our farms now have this machinery.”

SLC is today recognised as one of the leaders in sustainability in Brazil’s agribusiness sector — a bulwark of the economy that has grown in size and stature in recent years thanks to soaring demand for its products, notably from China.

Soya seedlings on an SLC farm
Soya seedlings cultivated by SLC, which uses weed-detecting cameras to minimise herbicide use © Ricardo Lisboa, for the FT

Farming already accounts for 22 per cent of the Brazilian economy and seems poised for an even brighter future, with demand for food forecast to soar as the global population pushes towards 10bn by 2050, according to UN estimates.

The production of soyabeans — used for a variety of oils as well as for animal feed — surpassed 130m tonnes this year, up from 75m tonnes 10 years ago. In the same period, corn production almost doubled to reach 105m tonnes, according to official data.

Brazil’s agribusiness companies, however, are viewed with suspicion by the international community because of the sector’s historical links to deforestation in fragile biomes, such as the Amazon and the Cerrado savannah, which adjoins the south and east of the rainforest.

Special report: Brazil and its biomes

Today, attention is focused on Brazil’s big meat producers — companies such as JBS and Marfrig, which are regularly accused of failing to keep their supply chains free from cattle raised on deforested lands. Soya producers, too, have been lambasted by environmentalists for clearing land in order to grow crops.

A wide field

The reality, however, is complex. Brazil is the world’s largest producer of many commodities, including sugar, coffee and orange juice, which are not closely associated with the deforestation that is currently afflicting the country. Even the meat and soya producers encompass a broad spectrum, from big companies like SLC that recognise the economic potential of sustainable agriculture to small farmers whose lack of access to technology and resources often results in more destructive land use.

“There is no such thing as a monolithic agribusiness sector in Brazil. It doesn’t exist,” says Juan Carlos Castilla-Rubio, the chairman of Space Time Ventures, a São Paulo-based group focused on developing artificial intelligence and robotics technologies for agriculture. “There is the bad segment, mostly in livestock and ranching. Then there is a sector in the middle ground in terms of sustainability, which is trying to do its best to respect laws but they are not in a transformation. And then there is the advanced sector, which realises that a new revolution is required.”

For Mr Castilla-Rubio, SLC fits into the last group. It has joined forces
with Space Time Ventures to develop the camera technology to a point where autonomous robots could be used to detect the weeds and drones sent to kill them.

Celso Moretti, the president of Embrapa — a government-run agricultural research group — says Brazil’s advances in sustainable agriculture have been undermined by poor communication with the outside world.

It is a common refrain among executives in the industry, who fret that their willingness to adopt new technologies is being overshadowed on the world stage by the rhetoric of President Jair Bolsonaro, who regularly makes overtures to the small cattle farmers and gold miners who cause much of the country’s deforestation.

“We are not doing a good job of telling the world the things we are doing the right way, which is producing with technology and without cutting down forests,” says Mr Moretti, adding that illegal deforestation needs to be tackled via enforcement at the federal level.

“We don’t need to cut a single tree. We don’t have to use the Amazon to export more or feed the world. We have the technology.”

Superior soil

Much of this technology is focused on improving soil quality to increase yields and the sustainability of the land. The 204m-hectare Cerrado was once considered unsuitable for growing crops, but is now the heartland of Brazil’s soya and cotton production as a result of efforts to reduce the soil’s acidity and naturally occurring aluminium content.

Some larger producers have also begun no-till farming, which reduces carbon emissions and maintains the quality of the soil for a longer period.

“With no till, we are able to protect organic matter in the soil. And if you have good crop rotation, the soil can recover to the same level as in nature,” Mr Pavinato says.

Another important development has been the cultivation of crops to suit Brazil’s tropical climate. Mr Moretti points out that soyabeans are originally from China, but were brought to Brazil via the US and then genetically modified to flourish in the local climate.

“The fact is in Brazil, we have areas that we crop twice or three times a year,” he says. “We use around 65m hectares of land to produce 257m tonnes of grain and 67m tonnes of fruit and vegetables. And we have another 50m hectares of degraded pasture that we can incorporate in our production matrix, so we can double production of food and fibre without cutting down trees.”

Trouble with cowboys

The fly in the ointment, however, remains the cattle industry — both for its links to deforestation and its emissions of methane, a greenhouse gas produced as cattle digest their food.

Under pressure from international investors as well as purchasers in Europe, Brazil’s big meat companies are rushing to implement protocols to ensure that their supply chains are free from cattle raised on deforested lands.

But a clear problem remains with the tens of thousands of indirect suppliers — ranchers who provide cattle to the companies’ direct suppliers — who often live in remote areas, far removed from the purview of the likes of JBS and Marfrig. Unlike the soyabean industry, which uses fixed contracts, cattle sales operate on a spot market: purchasing is piecemeal, to reflect shifting consumer demand, and ranchers can easily sell to smaller, more unscrupulous operators if the big meat companies’ demands become too onerous.

“The biggest challenge we have in Brazil is to control and to trace the whole supply chain. Why is this so difficult? We have more than 2.5m producers,” says Paulo Pianez, sustainability director of Marfrig.

“How can we access the [indirect suppliers]? If I put too much pressure on my direct supplier for this information, they are going to simply sell to another person.”

Both JBS and Marfrig are adopting what they call an “inclusive” approach, offering support to their supply chain to help producers make better use of their land so that deforestation is unnecessary. They are also using technology such as blockchain to track the life cycle of cattle, as well as satellites to look out for deforestation among suppliers.

Few environmentalists, however, have been convinced, and JBS in particular has been accused of moving too slowly on the issue.

But Mr Pianez makes the point that any solution does not lie just in the meat companies’ hands.

“What we need is the government to implement regulations, meatpackers to all have the same policy system, retailers to only buy meat from meatpackers with these criteria, and investors and banks to provide conditions for producers to have the necessary resources,” he says.

“We believe that only this way can we change the livestock reality in Brazil.”

 



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A harrowing brush with Covid as India is ravaged

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As a foreign correspondent, my job is to tell India’s stories, not be part of them. But when I started feeling feverish while writing an article about Covid-19 vaccine policy last month, I had a gut feeling that the Sars-Cov-2 virus had found me.

I hoped it was exhaustion that I’d sleep off but the next day, still feverish, I was urged to take a Covid test. A leading diagnostic lab chain, which earlier had run an efficient home-testing service, had stopped answering its phones and responding to online requests. But a doctor friend persuaded one of the lab’s phlebotomists to collect my sample. Two days later, the results confirmed I was part of the ferocious coronavirus wave battering India and pushing its healthcare system to breaking point.

Over the following days, my physical symptoms remained mild. But it was still harrowing to be sick from a notoriously unpredictable virus knowing that drugs, hospital beds and oxygen were scarce. I suffered constant anxiety knowing I’d struggle to get medical help if I took a turn for the worse.

I quickly discovered that I’d been so focused on avoiding infection that I had no clue what to do once sick. A friend connected me to a Kolkata-based infectious disease specialist, who felt I was at low risk for severe illness. I’d had the first dose of a Covid vaccine 10 days before my fever started. But the doctor urged me to treat the illness aggressively from the start, given the chaos at hospitals.

He prescribed the antiviral drug, favipiravir, now undergoing clinical trials in the UK as a potential Covid-19 therapy but already approved in India for emergency use. Many of his patients had taken it, he said, and none suffered severely, including people in their 90s.

Normally, I’m reluctant to medicate. I knew favipiravir’s effectiveness as a coronavirus treatment wasn’t yet scientifically validated. But with hospitals turning away ailing patients, the logic of taking an experimental drug made sense. The challenge, I discovered, was to get hold of it.

I called five pharmacies, but all had run out of stock. A friend called six more to no avail. I panicked — the doctor wanted me to start the drug fast and Delhi was hours from the start of a weekend curfew. Then a friend, who’d heard I was Covid-19 positive, called.

“I’m looking for this drug,” I told her. “Any idea where I can get it?” She said she’d check. It turned out that people with foresight had prepared small emergency drug stashes. Her friend had such a stash and was willing to share it.

I was elated to get the pills to start treatment that night. But it wasn’t enough for the prescribed course. Days later I spent hours calling pharmacies in an unsuccessful hunt for more, before finally begging an industry friend to help.

My difficulties pale in comparison with the desperation, anger and grief beyond my sickroom. My Twitter feed was filled with pleas for hospital beds, oxygen cylinders, the antiviral remdesivir, plasma or a place in an intensive care unit. Top hospitals begged on Twitter for refills of dwindling oxygen supplies. Friends and many professional contacts were fighting for their lives. Doctor friends were weeping with impotent rage.

There was much grim news of death. A former Indian ambassador died after hours waiting in a hospital parking lot for admission; inpatients whose oxygen ran out; a top politician’s 34-year-old son, young journalists. Crematoriums struggled with an unprecedented flow of bodies.

I decided I had to tune out of the unfolding crisis, to ensure my physical recovery and to protect my mental health. I stopped checking Twitter. Newspapers piled up, unread.

Once I felt better and tuned back, I saw Narendra Modi’s government had cynically expanded eligibility for vaccination to all over the age of 18, despite an acute shortage of jabs.

And with thousands dying daily, often for want of medical help, the health minister was callously citing dubious official data to claim India’s Covid fatality rate was lower than richer countries — hardly consolation to grief-stricken families.

Today, I’ve recovered from my encounter with the virus. It will take far longer to get over the trauma of watching this calamity engulf the place I call home.

amy.kazmin@ft.com



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Indian foreign minister self-isolates after Covid cases detected in G7 delegation

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India’s foreign minister on Wednesday said that he was self-isolating after two members of the country’s delegation to the G7 meetings in London tested positive for coronavirus.

The face-to-face meetings in the UK capital began on Monday and are scheduled to end on Wednesday. Representatives from G7 countries such as Canada, Germany and France are attending alongside Australia and India as the UK seeks to strengthen its ties within the Indo-Pacific region.

Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, India’s external affairs minister, confirmed on Twitter that he was informed on Tuesday evening that he had been exposed to a possible Covid-19 case.

“As a measure of abundant caution and also out of consideration for others, I decided to conduct my engagements in the virtual mode,” he added. It is understood that the rest of the Indian delegation will self- isolate for the remainder of the G7 meetings.

Jaishankar held a socially distanced meeting with UK home secretary Priti Patel on Tuesday, where two agreed on a “migration and mobility deal” which will provide a “bespoke route” for young professionals from India looking to live and work in the UK. He met Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, earlier this week.

“We deeply regret that foreign minister Jaishankar will be unable to attend the meeting today in person,” a senior UK diplomat said. “(He) will now attend virtually, but this is exactly why we have put in place strict Covid protocols and daily testing.”



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Blinken rejects claims of ‘cold war’ between US and China

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America’s top diplomat Antony Blinken has rejected claims the US is entering a cold war with China during a visit to London to discuss with G7 counterparts how best to respond to the challenges posed by Beijing.

In an interview with Financial Times editor Roula Khalaf for The Global Boardroom, Blinken said he resisted “putting labels on most relationships including this one, because it’s complex”.

“This is not about initiating a cold war, this is all about doing our part to make sure that democracy is strong, resilient, and meeting the needs of its people,” he said, referring to Washington’s intention to hold a “democracy summit” later in the year.

Joe Biden, US president, has promised to “win” the 21st century in what he has portrayed as a “battle” between democracies and autocracies and has pointed to Chinese activities that the US says are damaging the international order.

Relations between the US and China deteriorated under the Trump administration and the countries remain at loggerheads over security, human rights, intellectual property, and rules governing trade and commerce.

“We’re not asking countries to choose [between the US and China],” Blinken added in remarks at the FT Live event on Tuesday, which were broadcast after G7 countries opened their meeting with a session on China.

Ahead of the event, a US state department official said the G7 session on Tuesday morning was intended to be a forum to discuss how to work closely with allies and partners to address shared challenges from a position of strength.

Antony Blinken, US secretary of state, far right, is meeting with G7 leaders in London to discuss how best to respond to the challenges posed by Beijing © Stefan Rousseau/Pool/Getty

Blinken said the US recognised that countries have complicated relationships, including with China, and that the US did not believe other countries’ economic relationships with Beijing “need to be cut off or ended”. However, he said the US wanted to foster and protect basic rules governing commerce, the environment, intellectual property and technology.

Biden has surprised many foreign policy experts by taking an approach to China that has more in common than not with the harsh stance taken by former president Donald Trump. One big difference has been a significant effort to work with US allies and partners to create more leverage to deal with Beijing.

His approach has been welcomed by allies in Asia, such as Japan and Australia. But there is concern in the EU about the bloc being caught between the US and China, particularly in Germany.

Angela Merkel, German chancellor, has said the EU and the US do not agree on everything and that it was “absolutely clear” that their interests were “not identical” when it came to China.

The G7 comprises the US, Canada, UK, France, Germany, Italy and Japan, and this year the UK has also invited Australia, India, South Korea, Brunei and South Africa to attend as guests.

Biden recently convened the first leader-level meeting of the Quad — a group that includes the US, Japan, India and Australia — as part of this effort to work with allies to counter Beijing.

Evan Medeiros, professor of Asian studies at Georgetown University, said the Biden team’s engagement with the G7 formed part of its effort to assemble coalitions to tackle the China challenge.

He said the administration was pursuing the right strategy by saying the US did not want a cold war and did not want countries to pick sides, but he added: “The reality is everybody is going to have to make choices when it comes to China.”

But Bonnie Glaser, Asia programme director at the German Marshall Fund of the US, highlighted concerns among some that Washington’s stance was “too aggressive and too confrontational”.

“I definitely have the impression that the Germans and some other Europeans are really quite unhappy about the US approach to China,” she said.

In March, the US, EU, UK and Canada co-ordinated the imposition of sanctions on Chinese officials over the country’s treatment of Uyghur Muslims in the western Xinjiang region, triggering retaliatory sanctions from Beijing.

Biden administration officials including Blinken frame the future of the US relationship with China as “competitive, collaborative and adversarial”, depending on the issue in question.

Washington wants to co-operate with Beijing on foreign policy issues including Iran, North Korea and climate change while also defending US interests in the military, technological and economic spheres and pushing back on human rights abuses in Hong Kong and Xinjiang.

Blinken said that “a democratic recession around the world” had occurred over the past 15 years, but admitted the US had its own challenges “visible for the world to see” when it comes to democracy, in a thinly veiled reference to the disputed presidential election and January 6 Capitol attacks.



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