At Dandelion Chocolate, we make choices about what ingredients to buy based on flavor as well as social and environmental impact. While our beans come from all over the world, our sugar only comes from Brazil. More particularly, 350 kilometers northwest of São Paolo, where the Native Green Cane Project is pioneering a new, more sustainable approach to sugarcane farming. We buy Native’s sugar through Global Organics, an excellent, values-driven importer that shares our standards for high quality ingredients and environmentally sound, sustainable practices.
Against the backdrop of conventional sugarcane cultivation, Native’s organic approach is remarkably progressive. Spearheaded by Leontino Balbo, an agronomist whose family has been in the sugar business for over 100 years, the project aims to replace traditional sugarcane farming methods that ravage natural ecosystems with new methods that return the land closer to its natural state. Historically, sugarcane is planted as a monocrop, harvested by burning the leaves off first, and dosed heavily with fertilizer and pesticides. In the end, this style of cultivation depletes the soil, destroys biodiversity, and—in Leontino’s view—weakens the sugarcane, leaving it vulnerable to disease.
To reverse the damage wrought by modern farming, Balbo implemented his own experimental system called ERA (Ecosystem Revitalizing Agriculture) which looks at healthy soil and biodiversity as the foundation of a thriving ecosystem, and the preservation of natural resources as agriculture’s highest priority. Leontino has spent the last 30 years integrating ERA into the Balbo family’s sugarcane production, and the results have been astonishing: 23x more biodiversity than conventional sugarcane farms—including forest fauna, fungi, and more, a 20% to 30% increase in yield per hectare (far outstripping production rates of conventional sugarcane), and the drastic reversal of the operation’s carbon footprint. Native’s mills also produce bioethanol, molasses, and animal feed, as well as enough electricity to process over six million tons of sugarcane per year, including enough surplus to power a city of more than 540,000. The project also became the first certified organic sugar plantation in 1997. It is now the largest organic agricultural project in the world, and provides about a third of the world’s organic sugar supply.
So, how exactly does ERA work? See below.
In 1988, Balbo embarked on a five-year project to build the first Brazilian-made “green cane harvester.” The machine is able to cut the cane with its leaves still on, stripping them off with powerful streams of air, and pitching them back into the soil as mulch. This returns 20 metric tons of “waste” per hectare to the earth, which helps to keep weeds down and provides a habitat for beneficial microorganisms. Now, instead of replanting sugarcane every year, the cane regrows six to seven times before it’s rotated out for a one-year nitrogen-fixing crop.
Healthy soil relies in part on how well it can perform as a container for oxygen and water. Heavy farm equipment leads to compacted soil, which holds less water and diminishes its capacity to host biodiversity. Native developed softer, low-impact tires on its harvesters, and deflates them partially to keep from compressing the soil. Some say they can drive over a foot painlessly.
At Native, dry matter leftover from processing the sugarcane is fed into a furnace that produces 200 tonnes of steam per hour. The steam is used to power Native’s sugar mill and buildings, producing enough power to sustain production as well as power the neighboring city. The entire operation is an enclosed system, and every output is fed back into the process.
A Self-Regulating Ecosystem
It took about five years after ERA was implemented for biodiversity to pick up, and the signs are still emerging. In the beginning, fungi began growing on cane leaves and the waste thrown back into the fields. Soon after, termites and earthworms arrived, loosening the soil and increasing its capacity to hold water. Ants no longer fed on the leaves of the cane, and natural predators balanced the population of any pests that did arrive. Little by little, the ecosystem revived itself and grew into a balanced, self-regulating environment.
We’re continually inspired by the systems at Native, and we’re grateful that they produce such delicious sugar for our chocolate!