Options on the table

Agriculture 4.0 can help to reduce pesticide use on farms in Brazil

A farmer spraying pesticides using a backpack sprayer

Lucas Lacaz Ruiz/Fotoarena/Folhapress

Agribusiness—one of Brazil’s strongest industries—generates approximately 25% of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP), provides 20% of jobs, and produces some of the country’s most important exports, with soybeans, sugar, cellulose pulp, beef, and poultry topping the list. But the sector’s high productivity is dependent, to a great extent, on the intensive use of pesticides, especially on large soybean, sugarcane, and corn fields, which together account for 75% of pesticide consumption in Brazil. Monoculture crops dominate vast swathes of Brazil’s farmland. Soy and maize, for example, accounted for almost 70% of total cropland in Brazil in 2018, as estimated by Companhia Nacional de Abastecimento (CONAB), occupying 61.7 million hectares or 7% of the country’s total land area.

The use of large volumes of pesticides on these crops has direct impacts on the environment—they contaminate the soil and surface and groundwater bodies such as rivers, lakes, and aquifers. Large farms can reduce these damages, according to experts interviewed for this article, by implementing emerging technologies.

“Solutions based on agriculture 4.0, such as sensors, smart machines that ‘talk to each other,’ the Internet of Things, and robotics, can help to ensure farm inputs, including pesticides, are used more effectively,” says electrical engineer Fernando Martins, a board member at world-leading sprayer manufacturer Jacto (see article).

The use of state-of-the-art technology in the coming years, says Martins, will allow farmers to utilize farm inputs (pesticides, fertilizers, seeds, water, etc.) at variable rates, rather than at constant rates as they currently do. Applying just the right amount of pesticides on crops is a challenge the industry is now actively addressing. “Farmers will put more pesticides in one field and less in another as needed, generating cost savings and improving spraying efficiency,” he explains. “Today, another force driving down the overuse of agrochemicals is their high cost.”

Alongside Jacto, in Pompeia, another São Paulo–based company investing in digital agriculture is Solinftec, in Araçatuba. Solinftec’s range of connected machinery and agricultural equipment is present in about 65% of sugarcane plantations in São Paulo. Large areas of commodity crops, such as soybeans, sugarcane, cotton, maize, and eucalyptus (for pulp making) are sprayed using crop dusters or tractors, while smaller plantations growing produce for domestic consumption are often sprayed by farmers themselves using backpack sprayers.

“Crop dusting is an environmental and public-health issue. Pesticides released from aircraft end up in springs, other plantations, protected areas, and populated areas. When aerial application is used, airborne pesticides can travel further, adversely affecting the environment and creating a health hazard for people living near farms, for farm workers, and for people who eat pesticide-laden produce,” says Adelaide Cassia Nardocci, a professor at the School of Public Health of the University of São Paulo (FSP-USP).

In a collaboration with the Health Surveillance Center at the State Health Department of São Paulo, FSP-USP created an online pesticide knowledge base called Ariadne, providing information on how pesticides are used and applied in São Paulo and, in particular, about pesticide effects on the environment and human health. “Ariadne is designed to help people unfamiliar with the subject to find information about pesticides,” says Nardocci.

Solinftec A Solinftec employee works from a computer during sugarcane harvesting operationsSolinftec

The need for solutions and intelligent systems to contain drift—the amount of pesticides falling out of the target area—and to make pesticide application and pest control more efficient led the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (EMBRAPA) to create Rede de Pesquisa Redagro, a research network formed by 10 universities and the National Union of Aerial Application Companies (SINDAG). At the beginning of the year, the researchers completed a four-year project titled “Development of aerial application as a strategy for controlling agricultural pests of national interest.”

“Deploying technology, agriculture 4.0, and intelligent decision support systems for pest control in tropical agriculture has provided a pathway for improving food and energy security,” says Paulo Cruvinel, a control systems and automation researcher at EMBRAPA Instrumentação in São Carlos, and head of the Redagro network. These efforts, he continues, have created new methods, leveraged new technologies, and developed strategies for more efficient spraying.

One study showed that the use of rotary atomizers—a type of spray nozzle—for soybean crops can reduce drift by about 80% in aerial application compared with the more widely used adjustable hydraulic nozzles. Another study, on ground application, established the level of automation needed to adjust boom spray nozzles and pressure depending on whether the tractor is moving in a straight line or making a turn.

Technological innovation may be the way to mitigate pesticide use on commodity crops, but for the food crops supplied to street markets throughout Brazil, largely by smallholders, promoting pesticide-free organic farming could be the avenue of choice. In addition to minimizing the risk of contamination, reducing pesticide use can prevent poisoning among the 4.4 million small farmers who produce 70% of the produce consumed in Brazil.

Promoting agroecology
Draft Bill 6670/16, which has been pending before the House since 2016, proposes a National Policy for Pesticide Reduction (PNaRA) and measures to promote organic farming, agroecological farming, and biological control—an approach that uses insects, fungi, viruses, and bacteria for pest control. “PNaRA is a counterweight to Draft Bill 6299/02,” says biologist Fernando Carneiro, a member of the Brazilian Association of Collective Health (ABRASCO) and a researcher at Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (FIOCRUZ) in Ceará. “The bill has been slow to move through Congress. Only recently has a special committee been set up to discuss it.”

PNaRA will also do away with tax exemptions and financial incentives for imports, production, and marketing of pesticides. An audit conducted by the Brazilian Federal Audit Court (TCU) estimated that revenues lost to tax benefits for pesticides were as much as R$9 billion between 2010 and 2017. Because these products are classified as agricultural inputs, the money farmers spend buying them is tax deductible.

Caetano Barreira/Olhar Imagem An airplane dusting a sugarcane plantation in São PauloCaetano Barreira/Olhar Imagem

Agroecological farming, explains Carneiro, promotes sustainable crop management by incorporating social, political, cultural, environmental, and ethical issues into farming. “Agroecology practices look at farmers’ working conditions, whether crops are compatible with the surrounding ecosystem, and the level of processing throughout the value chain,” he says. They also aim to minimize the use of pesticides and fertilizers, and promote organic farming.

According to data from the Office for Agricultural Development and Cooperativism, an agency linked to the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, and Food Supply, the area of cropland occupied by organic crops is expected to set a record this year, exceeding the 750,000 hectares recorded in 2016. Agroecology is largely being driven by family farming. Despite this growth, however, organic crops still occupy only 1.2% of total cropland in Brazil, giving the country a meager 13th place among global producers.

“We believe alternative farming methods are important. Both conventional and organic farming, if well managed, produce foods that are safe for consumption. We’re not against agroecology or organic farming, but we need to be realistic. Organic farming is more expensive and produces lower yields,” says crop scientist Mario von Zuben, executive director at the Brazilian Crop Protection Association (ANDEF). “The difference between the two models is scale. Producing the same amount of organic crops requires a significant increase in cultivated area—and this is not an option given the resulting environmental impact and deforestation.” But Fernando Carneiro, of ABRASCO, counters that the notion that agroecology is expensive and cannot be implemented at scale is a myth. Recent publications by the of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) have recommended that agroecological production systems be promoted as a way of developing a solidarity economy that prioritizes local markets and supports regional development.

Another way to minimize exposure to poisoning on small farms is to invest in training farmworkers on how to use pesticides safely. “For lack of knowledge, many farmers apply pesticides at doses above recommended levels and using methods that are inadequate for the target pests. So it’s important that they receive adequate training,” says crop scientist Hamilton Humberto Ramos, a researcher at the Center for Engineering and Automation at Instituto Agronômico (CEA-IAC) in Campinas, and head of the Aplique Bem program, which offers farmers training on pesticide use. In addition to health risks, improper application of pesticides leads to crop losses and undermines farm sustainability.