Solidaridad's primary tool for achieving this goal was a self-assessment toolkit created for smallholder farmers. The toolkit contains a questionnaire that asks the smallholder farmer to answer a series of yes/no questions related to the economic, social and environmental sustainability of their farm system. Their answers are entered into a database, which generates an individualized roadmap with benchmarks, and provides supporting material about best practices. As they change their practices, farmers can conduct the self-assessment again to see their progress and generate updated plans.
In a pilot study of the toolkit, a small group of field workers administered the self-assessment to 378 smallholders in the Capanema munipality in Paraná state. Solidaridad wrote a report to evaluate the tool and discuss the "gaps" found between farmers' practices and practices needed for RTRS (Round Table on Responsible Soy) certification. Then they held three workshops with policymakers, public agriculture extension workers, and others with influence on agriculture and environmental practices in the region to discuss the results, critical issues identified, and the necessary collective steps to be taken to work on closing the gaps. Barriers to closing these gaps include national policy uncertainty, smallholder difficulty in accessing finance, and lack of incentives to encourage conservation of biodiversity, particularly native species.
Reducing the use of pesticides and other agrotoxins commonly used (and overused) in soy farming is one of the key goals of Solidaridad's efforts to help soy farmers in Brazil. Solidaridad created a tookit for use by stakeholders that consists of a manual for best management practices (BMPs) on pesticides and information about Individual Protection Equipment (EPI). This information is crucial for smallholders to maintain both individual and environmental safety when trying to reduce harm from pests on their crops. Solidaridad also ran four field demonstrations of better management practices for using and handling 'agrotoxicos' in Capanema.
Solidaridad partner Gebana explored the mechanical management of weeds as another way to reduce pesticide use. In Brazil, Gebana is finding that weed control is now the greatest challenge to farmers engaged in organic agriculture, who face a labor shortage for hand hoeing. The "Gebana zero-till system" tested for the mechanical management of weeds has two stages. In the first stage, an "Electroherb" treats weeds in a field with high-voltage electric shock prior to planting. Post-planting, an inter-row rotating disc cultivator, known as a "capinadeira" is employed to cut weed roots one centimer above the soil. The system showed promising results in a two-year study.
Next, Solidaridad decided to compare the profitability of four soy production systems-organic, organic Electroherb zero-till, conventional, and conventional GMO. The first phase of the study used existing data, but was also highlighted with measurements taken by a select group of farmers who participated in the project. The results of the first phase show that organic producers recruit a larger workforce than conventional producers, who rely on herbicides rather than manual labor for weed control. The gross added value appears higher for organic producers. Non- organic producers with an area less than 10 hectares have a higher production cost. The second phase of the study found that costs per hectare of soybean production are quite similar, except for pesticide costs, where conventional producers spend six times more than organic producers. The study found that revenue is higher and costs are lower for organic producers compared to conventional producers.
To impact soy smallholders internationally, Solidaridad also helped RTRS acquire a license for ChainPoint, an IT platform that RTRS now uses for central registration, monitoring and control of certified product volumes throughout the supply chain, checks on sustainability claims, and management reporting. The acquisition of ChainPoint allowed RTRS to start a Credit Trading Platform through which buyers whose demand for RTRS-certified soy exceeds local supply can purchase credits from RTRS-certified suppliers whose local markets do not pay a premium for RTRS-certified soy.
The work of Solidaridad and Gebana has had an immense impact on this region's soy producers. Trainings in best management practices and the Gebana zero-till system helped the Capanema municipality become the lowest class user of agrochemicals in the region. Producers working with Solidaridad in this area have effectively abandoned the use of the Stockholm and Rotterdam conventions-listed agrochemicals. In November 2013, 163 smallholders in Paraná state received RTRS certification for their soy, becoming the first group of family farmers in Latin America to do so. They join a select group of producers until now composed only of large companies such as Grupo Maggi, Los Grobo, and Ceagro. While the volume of soy produced by these smallholders is small, acquiring certification now makes it possible for these Brazilian farmers to unlock all the benefits of responsible production for their families and communities. By empowering smallholder soy farmers in Brazil to assess and make changes to their production system, Solidaridad will continue to help Paraná state economically, socially, and environmentally.