THIS ARTICLE IS TRANSLATED FROM THE ORIGINAL ARTICLE BY SARAH OBERTREIS, FRANKFURTER ALLGEMEINE ZEITUNG (GERMAN)
At the age of 26, Felipe Villela is already the founder of a foundation. He wants to revolutionize agriculture – with the help of traditional knowledge from his home country Brazil.
Felipe Villela has set up reNature Foundation, whose goal is to get companies to switch to sustainable agriculture. This type of agriculture called ‘agroforestry’ tries to mimic the interaction of natural ecosystems and grow crops such as cotton and palm oil together. The big players are still skeptical.
Your foundation claims that the sustainable cultivation concept can generate more income. Why have we not always grown our food that way?
On the one hand, the cultivation system is actually very old, but on the other hand also very new because it is only now gaining prominence. Agroforestry, as the sustainable agricultural model is called, was practiced for centuries by farmers who had no contact with large industries and, therefore, did not pass on the knowledge. We need more studies to prove how economically beneficial our system is, because many people still think: These hippies. But we are serious.
Do the big companies to which you present your ideas also notice this?
I have spoken to many companies – from small companies that actually believe in sustainable business practices, such as the sneaker manufacturer Vieja and the outdoor brand Patagonia – to big players like Adidas. The first question big companies always ask is: Can you also do agroforestry in a big way? Although I can prove this is possible, there is still a lot of uncertainty because they don’t want to take risks. What I’ll then say is that if you continue to grow your resources in monocultures, at some point you will not have anything to harvest.
At these talks, do you feel that your position is taken seriously?
I would say 70 percent of companies take us seriously, 30 percent do not. Those who do not take us seriously still know the importance of the topic, but they have no idea how to tackle it. When I introduced my Adidas project, I talked to someone in the middle of the supply chain. He said at some point, “We have nothing to do with the growing of our cotton, it’s something the people in Hong Kong do.” These managers work so far removed from the reality of what’s going on in the fields; you first need to get them back down to earth and say, “Your cotton farming is destroying entire landscapes.”
You are only 26 years old, a year ago you founded the reNnature Foundation. From where do you get your knowledge about agroforestry?
From Brazil, where I come from. The Amazon inspired me the most. There, I have seen many people who live in harmony with nature: They grow their own food, they produce medicine and fabrics – everything comes from the rainforest. I have visited many places where agroforestry is practiced traditionally. I also studied sustainable agriculture in The Netherlands.
In recent weeks, Brazil has been in the news mainly because of the huge fires in the Amazon.
These fires will never stop unless we prove that sustainable livestock and soybean cultivation can be more profitable than traditional agriculture. The soybean and livestock industry is responsible for 25% of GDP in my home country but sooner or later it will need to switch to sustainable agriculture. Many people believe that an environmentally friendly lifestyle in everyday life could help decrease the number of fires, but this is about something much bigger. At the moment we need solutions on a large scale.
You spoke at the Me Convention, an event at the IAA (International Automobile Association) sponsored by Mercedes. Many environmentalists would not accept the invitation of a car manufacturer out of principle.
Events like the Me Convention help me reach out to other audiences and connect with people who can help me spread the ideas of reNature. I know that there are many environmentalists who oppose such events because they think it’s greenwashing. But we are at a point where we humans, in an increasingly warmer world, cannot afford to refuse participation. We also need to talk to the industry representatives who have harmed our planet in the past and come up with solutions together for the future. So “greenwashing” in this sense is a step in the right direction.
By 2030, reNature wants to make one million hectares of land that has become degraded and infertile by conventional agriculture usable again. Where do you plan to be in five years?
By 2024 we want to have made half a million hectares usable again. I would like to have at least ten model farms. Each of these model farms should show how another different crop can be grown sustainably and provide scientific data alongside it. At the moment we already have a farm where cocoa and coffee are grown.
How will you finance these model farms?
Companies and farmers will pay for them. Thus far, about 30 of the 36 offers we have are from cooperatives and farmers who have no budget themselves, but more offers will come. It is important to me that we promote a for-profit model. In general, we could earn a lot more money with sustainable businesses, but the system is still very unstructured. We need to assign a clear value to biodiversity, water resources and CO2 emissions, and no longer sell products where these actual costs are not even included in the price.