Sustainable Fruit farming In the CAatinga: managing ecosystem service trade-offs as agriculture intensifies (SUFICA)

Lead Research Organisation: University of East Anglia
Department Name: Biological Sciences


The SUFICA project aims to enhance the competitiveness, sustainability and long-term resilience of fruit farming in the São Francisco valley in north-eastern Brazil, as it intensifies. The project will work with growers and international supply companies to co-design and test nature-based innovations on fruit farms, aiming to generate multiple environmental benefits whilst enhancing fruit yield or quality and reducing inputs. It takes a trans-disciplinary approach, bringing scientists, farmers and industry together to tackle the challenge of managing a sensitive agro-ecosystem at the food-water-environment nexus, in the context of economic development.

There are three major outcomes: 1) SUFICA experimentally tests 'ecological intensification' as a pathway to sustainable intensive agriculture; 2) SUFICA establishes the necessary research infrastructure and tools to monitor and continually improve biodiversity and ecosystem services on farms in the São Francisco valley; 3) SUFICA demonstrates how a partnership approach enables the benefits of agricultural growth and environmental protection to be combined. This approach can be applied in other developing countries.

The SUFICA partnership is a response to strong market signals in the agri-food sector that farmers should take action to support biodiversity. The project links this biodiversity objective with production-enhancing ecosystem services - pollination and water flow regulation - to assess the potential for management that benefits both biodiversity and production. The approach, termed 'ecological intensification', has shown promise in Europe and North America, but has not been experimentally tested in tropical semi-arid environments.

The underlying scientific hypothesis is that multiple regulating ecosystem services can be co-erced to flow in bundles, and thus be synergistically enhanced in semi-arid agricultural landscapes, with accompanying biodiversity benefits. SUFICA tests this hypothesis using a repcated, farm-scale, Before-After-Control-Impact (BACI) experiment, co-designed with farmers to monitor the effects of management actions that are feasible and attractive to growers in the region. The SUFICA experiment is the first scientifically robust, replicated test of 'ecological intensification', in which multiple environmental and agronomic outcomes are directly monitored. We include carbon sequestration, as climate change mitigation in agriculture is a development goal for Brazil. The research will use state-of-the-art mapping and modelling approaches to explore mechanisms and predict changes to natural capital stock and ecosystem service delivery.

The SUFICA experiment incorporates different landscape and farming contexts and builds capacity among farmers. Through carefully designed knowledge exchange processes, larger farms will learn from ecological and diversified practices of small farms, while small farms are supported to engage with international export markets. All farmers in the project will be involved in developing globally recognised farm-scale biodiversity assessment tools, through which they can demonstrate their positive actions.

The São Francisco valley lies in the caatinga, a semi-arid ecoregion of seasonally dry tropical forest with globally important biodiversity. The caatinga is threatened by habitat loss and degradation due to agriculture, and predicted increases in aridity due to climate change. Agricultural development is key for both poverty reduction and long-term economic growth in Brazil. With old intensification trajectories, this growth will come at the expense of biodiversity and ecosystems, reducing long-term resilience and disproportionately impacting on smallholder farmers and the rural poor. SUFICA will establish a process and infrastructure to re-direct intensification to a more environmentally sensitive trajectory, aiming to reduce farm inputs and protect biodiversity in highly productive landscapes.

Planned Impact

The main beneficiaries of SUFICA are as follows:

FRUIT FARMERS IN THE SÃO FRANCISCO VALLEY, including small farmers, are the most important beneficiaries. They will have the opportunity to have biodiversity and ecosystem services measured on their farms and to be involved in developing globally-recognised software that allows them to demonstrate the positive actions they are taking on biodiversity. Farmers in the area, including young and future farmers still in education, will learn more about ecosystem services and biodiversity, including how and why to manage it well in their own region. Ultimately, the São Francisco Valley fruit farmers will benefit from enhanced sustainability, long term resilience and improved relationships with international suppliers.
FRUIT FARMERS IN OTHER SEMI-ARID REGIONS, INCLUDING THE MIDDLE EAST. The work of SUFICA will be widely communicated, benefiting farmers in similar regions elsewhere in the world. The software developed under objective 5 is free for farmers to use, and applicable to farmers in similar regions elsewhere. Two workshops are included to transfer knowledge to fruit farmers in similar landscapes in Chile.
CONSERVATION NGOs, both in Brazil and internationally, will benefit from experimental results that test whether ecological intensification can protect wildlife. Ecological intensification is promoted as a solution for nature conservation generally, including by large international NGOs such as The Nature Conservancy, since agricultural lands provide important habitats. Local NGOs in the caatinga will be able to join the SUFICA Community and attend workshops and events. They will benefit from a better understanding of the wildlife in farmed areas (objective 3) and how it is affected by threats (objective 4). They will also benefit from the valuation of pollination services, which is likely to demonstrate in monetary terms the importance of protecting natural habitats.
FRUIT SUPPLIERS, including, but not exclusivelthe two project partners, will benefit from the knowledge exchange in SUFICA, and the exploration of possible actions to enhance sustainability, in response to demands from their buyers.
FRUIT RETAILERS. UK supermarkets are keen to demonstrate sustainability across their fresh produce supply chains. For example, Tesco, Marks & Spencer and Waitrose have all recently been developing pollinator policies, and both Waitrose and Sainsbury's have biodiversity policies for farms. Such policies are harder to implement in developing countries, where biodiversity is not so widely considered by the farming community. This project takes steps towards enabling farmers in a region that directly supplies UK and US supermarkets (including Walmart, for example) to improve their management of biodiversity, and to communicate their efforts back up the supply chain. The SUFICA approach, including the experimental infrastructure and transdisciplinary research, could be replicated in other regions.
CONSUMERS PURCHASING FRUIT (ESPECIALLY UK). The benefits to consumers are through increased sustainability and better soil, water and biodiversity management practices on farms in Brazil and Chile where the fruit they buy is grown. There is also potential for improved fruit quality, for instance due to better pollination leading to higher sugar contents or lower acidity.
BRAZILIAN GOVERNMENT. The project helps the Brazilian Government to achieve specific development objectives to increase exports and sustainably intensify agriculture to reduce poverty in one of its key regions of rural poverty.
DEVELOPMENT, ENVIRONMENT AND AGRICULTURE POLICYMAKERS. The project tests whether the benefits of agricultural growth, environmental protection and sustainable development can be combined, and tests a specific industry-research partnership approach to delivering this. The outcomes will be of strong interest to policymakers in developing countries where agricultural intensification is planned.


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Description DICKS_U19DTP: Integrated pest management in fruit farms of semi-arid Brazil: the role of semi-natural habitat (Norwich Research Park DTP)
Amount £100,000 (GBP)
Organisation Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 10/2019 
End 09/2023
Description SUFICA first producer's workshop, Brazil 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact At this workshop, grape and mango producers and professional fruticulturists gathered to learn more about the SUFICA approach. There were 22 attendees, of which 20 were Brazilian nationals. Five were SUFICA project researchers, 11 were farm managers or other farm staff involved in production and management, 4 were educators or agronomy consultants working in the fruticulture industry (15 practitioners from Brazil, in total).

The aim was to decide what actions to experimentally test during the project. The workshop was hosted by the Centro de Excelência em Fruticultura - SENAR. The outcomes were a set of completed questionnaires, notes from discussions between farmers, a shortlist of actions for the SUFICA experiment. All attendees provided their informed consent to be involved in the project. Following this, we have established a network of communication among all the engaged farmers, through the private encrypted social media service WhatsApp, which is very widely used in Brazil.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
Description SUFICA international workshop 2, Chile 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Third sector organisations
Results and Impact On Monday October 1st, a launch event for the SUFICA project took place at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, in Santiago. The event was opened by the College of Agriculture and Forestry Dean. The SUFICA project leaders presented the concept of ecological intensification (Dr Lynn Dicks) and an overview of the project (Dr Eduardo Arellano). Vinina Ferreira introduced us to the Caatinga. Other SUFICA researchers presented their previous work on bees (Dr Patricia Luiza de Oliveira Rebouças) and coffee pollination in the caatinga (Dr Fabiana Oliveira da Silva) and birds in Californian vineyards (Dr Andres Muñoz-Sáez).
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
Description SUFICA launch event, Brazil 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Undergraduate students
Results and Impact A one day event held at the University of the Sao Francisco Valley in Petrolina, Brazil, to launch the SUFICA project. 213 people attended, all from Brazil. The audience included many undergraduate agriculture and biology students from the two universities in Petrolina and Juazeiro, but also local agriculturists, the manager of Labrunier Farms and researchers interested in sustainability of fruit production. During the discussion following the presented lectures, a producer expressed himself and gave a testimony about the honour of contributing to SUFICA and the importance of discussing sustainability. The collaboration with SENAR (and its Centre for Excellence in Fruticulture, located in Jauzeiro, Brazil) was established at this event.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018