Rochagem Congress Part 3: Dr. Clenio Pillon on Agricultural Advances for Food Sovereignty in Brazil

Dr. Clenio Pillon, Lead Researcher at Embrapa’s Temperate Climate Center in Pelotas.


Miranda Chase, the director of RTE’s online research database, gave a presentation and represented us at the III Brazilian Rochagem Congress. You can read more about the conference in our previous articles here and here.

“Brazil is one of the largest food producers in the world, but at the same time, it is highly dependent on the importation of fertilizers, with a direct implication on the costs and competitiveness of agriculture.” This is how The III Brazilian Rochagem Congress describes the issue it seeks to address. Remineralization offers a potential solution. The Congress took place in November 2016 at the Embrapa Temperate Climate Research Center in Pelotas in the state of Rio Grande do Sul. The conference explored new technological developments in remineralization and identified channels for institutional partnerships between government sectors, academia, and the private sector. It was the third major remineralization conference held in Brazil.

Geological resources favorable for agriculture in Brazil. (Click to enlarge)

On the first day of the conference, Dr. Clenio Pillon gave a presentation titled “Rock Powders for Soil Remineralization: Past, Present, and Current Challenges.” Dr. Pillon has held the position of Lead Researcher at Embrapa’s Temperate Climate Center in Pelotas since November 2011. He has worked in the area of ​​agronomy, with experience in ​​soil management and conservation. Additionally, his research focuses on the development of new inputs for agriculture, from the use of co-products of agroindustrial processes to bioactive plants.


Food security vs. food sovereignty

In his presentation, Dr. Pillon talked about the need to go beyond current paradigms, to take remineralization to the next level, to identify challenges, and to go after them. He asked, “What is the state of Brazilian agriculture today?” Brazil’s agriculture is very diverse, but targeted for exportation rather than domestic consumption, in line with international trade practices rather than the needs of the Brazilian population. This is a government strategy to put Brazil on the map as an agricultural producer. In recent years the agricultural sector has been growing and today it represents a large part of the Brazilian GDP.

Turning rock dust into a product. (Click to enlarge)

One would think that by producing so much food, Brazil would have food security. But Dr. Pillon calls attention to the key difference between food security, which is about reliable access to food, and food sovereignty, which is about the right of people to decide where their food comes from and how it is grown, to preserve their culture and their environment. In order to produce large volumes of food, Brazil depends on other countries that sell fertilizers. Brazil is the fourth largest user of fertilizer in the world, and imports more than 70% of its fertilizers. Thus, Brazil might currently enjoy high levels of food security because of its ability to produce lots of food, but this can change suddenly due to instability of the foreign fertilizer market. This undermines Brazil’s food sovereignty.

We now need to promote the use of remineralization to transform this reality. The use of rock dust can allow Brazil to produce more food without the need to expand the agricultural frontier into protected forested ecosystems such as the Amazon.


Three waves of agriculture in Brazil

The Embrapa team in Pelotas. (Click to enlarge)

When looking at the past, Dr. Pillon identifies three waves in the movement towards better agriculture: the first wave was the green revolution in the 1970s, which was characterized by monocultures using GMOs. The green revolution relied on research by chemists, biologists, and agronomists, but they did not collaborate with one another.

The second wave started to gain momentum in the late 1990s and early 2000s and was characterized by integrated systems combining intense and target-specific agriculture, and relied on multidisciplinary collaboration. The third wave takes this collaboration further, with a more general focus on building soils, storing carbon, and restoring ecosystems, including farmland.

We are now in a transition moment between the second and third wave. The third wave is characterized by biology-based agriculture. Agriculture was traditionally a field studied by agronomists, whereas biologists studied plants in the wild. Biology-based agriculture emerges as a combination of these two fields.

Prize winners from left to right Clenio Pillon, Eder de Souza Martins, Othon Leonardos, Suzi Theodoro, José Alcides Fonseca Ferreira, Peter Van Straaten, Bernardo Knapik. (Click to enlarge)

The idea should be obvious, but we can’t emphasize it enough. Professionals involved with food and soil sciences at large (biology, microbiology, agronomy, geology, nutrition, and others) must collaborate and learn from one another. The third wave calls for a deeper appreciation for the embedded complexity found in these soil systems. Agriculture must consider the biological needs of the plants in combination with the physical characteristics of the soils, the chemical properties of each fertilizer, and the ecosystem as a whole. We need to take all these things into account as being part of one large system, rather than as being apart or independent from one another.

This third wave is characterized by complex systems, where researchers work in close collaboration with one another developing joint research projects instead of just sharing the results of individual projects. This leads to a framework that goes beyond just providing fertilizers for plants, and rather endeavours to create healthier soils that can hold more water, store more carbon and support more ecosystems.

The third wave is a reminder of the concept of regenerative agriculture, which “describes farming and grazing practices that, among other benefits, reverse climate change by rebuilding soil organic matter and restoring degraded soil biodiversity.” (See this article for a more complete description.) This is very much in line with Dr. Pillon’s discussion. Complexity is increasing, and we need to embrace it.

Where is remineralization going? What principles are we going to follow? What is the agriculture that we envision for our future? We need to turn this vision reality and transform agriculture as we know it. We need to create partnerships between academia, the private sector, and the public sector. We need more than teams; we need networks. We no longer need just food, we need nutrition. We need to consider the climate, and we need to consider how better agriculture can facilitate environmental sustainability.

Following through on Dr. Pillon’s recommendations will require continuing collaboration. Academia, the private sector, and the public sector all will have important roles going forward. I think the nonprofit sector, the media, grassroots organizations, and public education will also play a crucial role. Dr. Pillon’s presentation offers a compelling map of the history of remineralization, and charts a trajectory toward a bright future.


Miranda Chase is an Environmental Policy Researcher, with a BA in International Relations and MSc in Integrated Water Management. She is a PhD candidate for the UMass program on Global Governance and Human Security, and is a research fellow from the IGERT program of the National Science Foundation. Her research mainly concerns sustainable development in rural communities of the Amazon basin. As a coordinator for RTE, her goal is to provide a state-of-art database with reliable information about remineralization as a sustainable, effective and affordable solution to agriculture worldwide. This knowledge can assist scientists and policy makers, farmers and gardeners, and the general public in making better environmental decisions.

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