It has been almost 30 years since Native Alimentos Organicos Ltd., the leading Brazilian producer of organic sugar and ethanol started the journey to turn a 68-year-old, third generation family owned enterprise into one of the world’s largest organic and biodynamic agriculture ventures.

To be successful in the context of a food commodity like sugar there is usually only one goal in mind: Increase production, lower costs and get more profits at the expense of quality. Introducing any change to this paradigm has high risks. It needs strong perseverance and leadership of a visionaire like Leontino Balbo. 

Leontino Balbo in front of full Native line

Joining the family business after graduating as agronomist, in 1984 Leontino took the challenge to make both, the San Antonio and San Francisco mills of the Balbo Group sustainable, long before the term sustainability was in vogue. First he was determined to find a viable alternative to the common practice of burning the green sugar cane before harvesting.

For the workers in the field there are health risks such as poisonous snakes and insects hiding in the bush and skin irritations if getting in direct contact with the leaves of the cane. As a result, the legislation in Brazil did not allow harvesting green cane before burning it, said Fernando Cesar Alonso de Oliveira, product development and sustainability manager at Native, during a tour of the plantation and distillery offered to OWN.

“Leontino wanted to find a way to stop the common burning practice and to preserve the straw as mulch and natural fertilizer”, said Alonso. The dynamic agronomist also aimed to reduce costs avoiding dependency on agrochemicals and to make a better use of the bagasse and other byproducts of the sugar cane processing; an ambitious and impossible mission to most traditional sugar cane producers of large conventional plantations, but Leontino has proven that “when there is a will there is a way”.

Green cane mechanical harvesting was introduced to the sugar sector during the 1970s. The German company Claas built the first green cane harvester in 1971. Leontino was committed to developing a Brazilian-made prototype of an effective green cane mechanical harvester. After many challenges Leontino reached the goal and in 1993 Native introduced an efficient harvester built in Brazil.  By 1995 almost all the sugar cane produced at the San Francisco plantation was harvested without burning the cane.

Leontino Balbo-Native close up headshotGradually, the Green Sugarcane Project (Projecto Cana Verde), as these technological innovations were called at Native, found followers at other plantations in the region. The government paid attention, to the point that 2014 will be the last year where green cane burning will be allowed in flat areas of sugar cane cultivation in the Sao Paulo State, where the Native plantations San Francisco and are located. And in three years the burning practice will not be allowed any longer.

Turning the sugar cane leaves back to the soil keeps moisture on the ground, offers a natural weed control and encourages a healthy soil rich in microorganisms providing nitrogen and other nutrients needed. The old methods of crop rotation with legumes to fix nitrogen and the use of manure add to the formula for optimal fields. Tilling with heavy equipment at Native is only done every seven years and the trucks have special wheels to prevent the soil from compacting.

Since the good agricultural practices adopted by Native coincide with the methods of organic farming, after a few adjustments, it became the first organic certified sugar plantation in 1997 with a harvest of 1,600 tons of sugar cane. Since then the introduction of additional sustainable practices at Native has provided an ideal environment for the sugar cane, with continued increased productivity of 20-30% more yields per hectare.

When burning the green cane stopped, new problems with pests arrived. But at Native the approach is to observe nature and understand where an imbalance is created that results in weakness and disease, explains Alonso. The sugarcane Borer (Diatraea saccharalis) is a moth that in the stage of larvae attacks the sugarcane and other crops such as corn, rice and sorghum.

“Native has developed a state-of-the-art laboratory for effective biological pest control”, said Alonso. “We have been studying and working in this activity since the 1970’s”. In 1981 we got control of this devastating pest identifying a natural predator, the Cotesia flavipes. It is a tiny vasp that depends on the borer to survive. In the laboratory the larvae of the borer gets infected by the vasps, before they are strategically released in the field. The method used is very effective for Native to manage without the use of any toxic pesticides. “Every dollar spent in the laboratory represents a 6 dollar sugar cane recovery”, says Alonso.

An important result of proper soil management at Native has been the creation of water streams along the drainage channels during the rainy season. “Instead of erosion caused by the heavy rain, our soils provide great filtration capturing rain water in reserves that attract and support biodiversity”. Developing islands and corridors of native forest integrated with the crop fields support the eco-system.

Today, Native produces over 90,000 tons of sugar in 16,000 hectares, processing 8,500 metric tons every day. The facilities operate 24 hours a day for most of the year, supporting 1,400 jobs. A total of 6,000 employees work for the Baldo Group. “Productivity at Native is consistently higher than at any other sugar cane operation, reaching 100 metric tons per hectare; others get 85 metric tons at the most”, says Alonso.

And while the majority of the sugar cane mills in the region are going through difficult times due to increased prices of the agrochemicals they use and price fluctuations, since the government is keeping prices artificially low, selling gasoline cheap, Native is producing high quality bioethanol, and organic certified alcohol, sugar, molasses and inputs for animal feed. It also generates its own electricity required to process over six million tons of sugarcane per year, generating extra power that it sells back to the grid to satisfy the needs of a population of more than half a million. And since 2008 the company participates in the production of biodegradable plastic derived from sugar cane.

To obtain high quality ethanol the company made investments of 12 million US dollars in a state-of –the –art distillery four years ago. The organic ethanol produced at the distillery supplies a growing demand in the food, cosmetics and pharmaceutical industries in Brazil but mainly abroad.

Another important and innovative decision taken by Leontino was not to sell sugar as a commodity, but only products with added value and under its own Native brand. “ This was a hard but solid decision we have made”, said Alonso. And the strategy works. Today the Native sugar is sold all over Brazil and exported to the main international organic markets in North America, Europe and Asia, where most sales concentrate.

The diversified product portfolio at Native includes a line of breakfast foods offered to the domestic market to increase branding. Evidently, Native has become one of the main organic retail brands in Brazil. The attractive line includes roasted and ground coffee, cocoa mix, chocolate, cookies, juices, breakfast cereals, crystal and demerara sugar in different presentations, and even olive oil.

And besides investing in technology, organic farming methods to protect and enhance the soil, eliminate agrochemicals and introducing other practices to keep environmental balance, Native invests in its people. With the introduction of the mechanical harvester, field laborers that were no longer required were given the opportunity to be trained to develop skills for other areas of the operation. Many of them were also given a house within the plantation, to avoid long commuting to work every day.

“Native offers good working conditions and an attractive benefits package that includes health care and also scholarships for the children of the employees”, says Alonso. “Employee absenteeism and rotation are very low, although in our region manpower to work the sugar cane fields nowadays is scarce and planting is still done by hand.”

The company enjoys organic certification from the Instituto Biodinâmico (Brazil), ECOCERT (France), JAS (Japan) and Doalnara (Korea). It also has the Ecosocial certification from Instituto Biodinâmico and the Rainforest Alliance.

Native has contributed to the expansion of the organic sector around the world, providing companies abroad a reliable supply of certified organic sugar, supporting the development of organic processed foods and brands and their expansion internationally. But most of all Native has developed a method to operation and development of a farm and business based on the pillars of sustainability. When OWN suggested Leontino to consider exporting this rich know-how and experience and not only the goods carrying the Native brand, he smiled and replied: “ We will be happy to teach and share our knowledge”.

Native and the Balbo Group live and work under the principles of sustainable development. Accomplishments established under the “Cradle 2 Cradle” model include:

  • Open to constant research and development
  • Pest biologic control
  • Sugarcane breeding programs
  • Re-introduction of native vegetation and protection of water reservoirs
  • Monitoring of biodiversity in agricultural areas
  • Elimination of sugarcane burning for harvesting
  • Rational usage of organic effluents from agro-industrial production
  • Green manure crops in rotational cycle
  • Preservation of soil physical structure
  • Energy production from bio-mass and carbon credits
  • Byproducts include biodegradable plastic resin and animal feed