Leontino Balbo Junior preaches the gospel of post-organic agriculture. Follow his path, turn away from the temptations of modern agriculture and lame crops will rise — or so he claims.
As executive vice-president of Brazil’s Balbo Group, he supplies 34 percent of organic sugar to the world market and is no fringe eccentric. For over 25 years, Balbo has been shaping a farming process he calls ecosystem revitalizing agriculture — ERA — and professes both soil and crops can be cleansed from the stains of resource depletion and pest resistance.
At Wired, David Baker has written a credulous, but sharp piece on ERA: “ERA is organic in its approach, but, Balbo says, it goes much further than simply not using artificial pesticides or fertilizer.”
He believes modern farming techniques and equipment damage soil in three ways: 1. Compaction leads to less water retention; 2. Fertilizer destroys nature’s balance; 3. Monocrops strangle farm dirt.
“So much soil used for agriculture is dead. We need to revitalize it, to restore the energy of the ecosystem,” says Balbo.
Revitalize, restore, energy, ecosystem — Balbo uses comforting buzzwords that flow together on paper, but never in practice. So what boots-on-the-ground techniques does Balbo proclaim for ERA?
On a 40,000-acre tract of sugarcane, Balbo first cut out crop burning. Crop trash was no longer burned, and instead used as mulch, which brought back beneficial bugs and worms. He also designed a harvester that cut the cane green and dumped the leaves back on the ground. (Balbo claims green-cane harvesting adds 20 tons of trash per hectare to the soil annually.) Next, Balbo switched to “ultra-soft” tires on his equipment — reducing soil compaction. And later, he began spraying sugar production byproducts back on the cane fields. Balbo claims the sugarcane began to thrive as never before, brought about a by a change in soil composition: Water retention, erosion-resistance and organic content all exploded.
From Wired: “At the heart of Balbo’s approach is the principle that, if he can restore his soil to condition of that in the forest, nature will do the rest.” But a forest is more conducive to feeding roving tribal bands armed with blowguns, not the masses waiting for the next bowl of rice or corn.
Balbo is sincere regarding ERA — but sincerity and efficacy are not always a matched pair. Wired admits as much: “Not everyone in the precision world of modern agriculture is comfortable with this apparently unscientific approach. The literature is still split about the benefits of green-cane harvesting, let alone the much more radical techniques of ERA. Balbo is passionately opposed to GM crops (‘like giving a monkey a revolver’) and he agrees that much of what he did in the early days came from intuition.”
Yet Balbo believes he has seen the future of sustainable agriculture, and that future is ERA. Balbo plans on promoting his ideas globally this fall — the ERA missionaries are coming.
(See here for the complete Wired article on Balbo and ERA.)
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