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Verde Agritech chief says burning sugarcane biomass poses a threat to environment and health

Academic studies have shown that biomass burning is a major source for many atmospheric gases produced
Sugarcane field
Millions of tonnes of sugarcane material are burnt each year in Brazil

Cristiano Veloso, CEO of Brazil-focused fertilizer group Verde Agritech PLC (TSE:NPK), has emphasized the acute danger of burning sugarcane biomass on the environment.

Specifically, millions of tonnes of the sugarcane material are burnt each year in Brazil, a crop grown using potassium chloride fertilizer (KCl) -- the most common product around, which contains 47.4% chloride. Herein lies the problem, and from where Veloso's interest in this wide-reaching issue stems.

Super Greensand

His firm's own fertilizer product, Super Greensand, does not contain chloride so when it is used by farmers to grow sugarcane, the biomass burnt for sugar and ethanol production, does not kick out harmful greenhouse gases.

"The more we sell (Super Greensand), the healthier the world will get," he told Proactive.

Let's dig deeper

Academic studies have shown that biomass burning is a major source for many atmospheric gases produced. Moreover, it appears to be the largest source of harmful chlorine gases and ones that are responsible for damaging the ozone layer, and therefore behind global warming.

Concentrations of key gases in the atmosphere driving global warming reached a new high last year, so it's a big concern.

Veloso has two problems with the vast usage of potassium chloride as a fertilizer and its associated sugarcane biomass burning.

The first is its cause of the dangerous gases emitted when the biomass is burnt as outlined above. The second, he explains, is when the biomass is burnt; it creates dioxins, which have been linked to cancer, along with problems with reproductive health and the immune system.

These dioxins are mainly by-products of industrial activities and can accumulate in the food chain. For example, a herd of cattle reared near a co-generation plant, where biomass is burnt to generate sugar and fuel, could be exposed to air full of harmful dioxins.

Indirectly, then, the consumer who later eats the beef is also subjecting themselves to the toxins.

Brazil and sugarcane

Of course, Brazil and the sugarcane industry go hand-in-hand.

Farmers use about 250 kg of KCl fertilizer for every hectare, so for South American country's 9 million cultivated hectares, one can estimate that Brazilian sugarcane-covered soils receive 1.07 million tons of chloride every year.

Burning the sugarcane in the fields in the country is now prohibited, so it goes to processing facilities but dangerous gases are still emitted. The toxic chemicals dioxins and furans are still generated by burning the sugarcane biomass left over from the juicing process.

"Biomass burning is one of the main sources of toxic gases, particulate matter and greenhouse gases on the planet," Verde said in a recent statement. "One of the gases released by this burning is chlorine. If the residue has chlorine in its composition, it may result in the formation of HCl, dioxins and furans."

Last July, Verde Agritech said it had become a member of the international non-profit organization Bonsucro, which represents sugarcane growers and buyers who are concerned about sustainability. It has more than 480 members.

The company has been voicing to the group its concerns about the sugarcane, environmental issue.

In Brazil alone, Verde points out that Bonsucro certified mills have the potential to consume around 1 million tons of Super Greensand if they moved from conventional potash salt source to its fertilizer product.

Veloso added: "It's sad because the farmers using our product, they're making the environment better, they're producing healthier food but they are not getting any recognition for what they're doing -- zero recognition."

Verde Marketplace

To that end, the company launched last month a new B2B (business-to-business) marketplace for sustainable food called Verde Marketplace. Farmers will be able to use the business to offer sustainably produced food directly to interested corporate buyers, serving a growing portion of customers looking for such produce.

The marketplace is available to food qualified under one or more of four credentials: chloride-free, bio-nutrient (nutrient-rich produce), carbon dioxide captured and organic.

Next year is set to be full of progress again for Verde.

Last July the firm kicked off operations at its processing plant. In 2019 the company plans to ramp up capacity further, to produce 200,000 tonnes of products and start the construction of a new processing facility capable of a further 600,000 tonnes per year.

In October, the company told investors it had been operating its plant 24 hours a day, seven days a week, just to fulfill existing orders for the product for this year's planting season.

The company has sold nearly 40,000 tonnes of Super Greensand this season, about 10 times' what was sold in 2017.

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