Formula Sustainable

Former Formula 1 driver Pedro Paulo Diniz turns farm in rural São Paulo into a hub for developing organic and regenerative agriculture models, and aims at scaling up their use to 2.5 million acres

Eliane Trindade
São Paulo

It was riding an enduro bike, at age 10, that Pedro Paulo Diniz started exploring the fields and grottoes at Toca farm. "That little bike was like a horse to me," he jokes, remembering his stays at his family's estate in Itirapina, about 135 miles northwest of São Paulo.

That childhood haven was a constant memory, when his passion for speed led the youngest son of Brazilian tycoon Abílio Diniz (chairman of BRF, former CEO of Pão de Açúcar), to an 11-year career in car racing worldwide, from ages 19 to 30.

When he was 25, Diniz reached the top of motorsports, becoming a Formula 1-racing playboy, riding his Ferrari through the streets of Monte Carlo and throwing parties with the likes of top model Naomi Campbell.

Now 48, Diniz is excited about slower rides, like a John Deere tractor and seeder used to plant beans in the 3,600-acre farm he bought with some partners at Avaré (rural São Paulo).

"They are self-driving machines, and very accurate, with the best in agricultural technology, as per our goal of working alongside nature," says Diniz, who also cofounded Rizoma.

Pedro Paulo Diniz, owner of Toca farm, in Itirapina, Sao Paulo - Folhapress

His new business started this year, and the goal is spreading its techniques to 2.5 million acres of farms, ranches, and woodland. "We need to leave behind the scarcity paradigm, the competition for natural resources, and replace it with a model of plenty."

He does not mind being called a "Pollyanna," for betting on a form of agriculture that will regenerate the planet instead of despoiling it. "That is what I believe in."

His showpiece for the project is Toca, the first farm to be certified as a B Corp in the world, after consolidation as a business with socio-environmental impact.

There, the farmer who wants to lead the 21st-century green revolution combines large-scale production of organic eggs (Toca has a 48 percent share in this segment of the Brazilian market) to agroforestry systems, producing citrus and other fruits, grains, and eucalyptuses.

Next, to a golf course and a polo field used by the Diniz family for weekend leisure, Toca was turned into an incubator for an innovative agricultural model. The farm's model imitates nature, by adopting the same logic forests do, with different crops planted in the same area, and that model helps it to regenerate the soil and to reject pesticides, by resorting to biological control of plagues.

As a pilot in a very long race towards more sustainable agriculture, Pedro Paulo has incorporated his new goals into his lifestyle, and into his investments as an heir to Abílio Diniz, who holds the ninth position in Forbes' list of Brazilian billionaires, with a net worth of 3.5 billion dollars.

"I'm very proud of Pedro and of what he's done with the Toca farm, which is in our family since 1970 and became a model of sustainability for Brazil and the world", says Diniz pére.

The family's entrepreneurial spirit served as a school. "At Toca, this was both a challenge and a virtue," says Pedro Paulo, speaking of the strict process to validate the farm's business model.

In trying to control the full production chain, he started dairy and juice businesses, both loss-making. "I was forced to step back and simplify the business," he says.

Diniz had to let go one-third of his workers and gained a few precocious grey hairs in the process. That's when he decided to focus on organic eggs, to dig himself out of a hole. "Now, Toca is a good business on all three fronts - social, environmental and financial."

He likes "presiding over this triple threat" way better than he did the perpetually competitive life of Formula 1, where he started with a small team, and with his father's blessing, though Abílio initially frowned upon his son's decision to forego college and move to Europe to be a pilot.

"As a pilot, I lived in an exciting environment, but relationships were shallow and competitive. Egos abounded, and I was relating more to fictional characters than to real people".

He is proud of his five years in Formula 1, even with inexpressive results. His best moment was leading for a while at a race until his car broke down before the checkered flag. "After the initial rush of enthusiasm, that circus would not make me happy at all."

Along the way, he had some serious crashes, among which an accident during the German Grand Prix of 1998, when he overturned his Sauber at 125 mph and escaped unharmed. In Silverstone, in a Formula 3 race in England, he broke his C-5 vertebra. "They were able to mend it."

High Gastronomy

The former pilot became a successful businessman when he started in the restaurant business. He's one of the owners of Mani, founded 11 years ago and since 2013 a fixture in the ranking of the 50 top restaurants worldwide.

The business started when model Fernanda Lima invited Diniz, whom she dated briefly, to start a vegetarian restaurant in São Paulo with three of her friends. "It was a Gaucha girl gang trying to open a vegetarian restaurant," he jokes, mentioning his partners' roots in Southern Brazil, a region known for its meat consumption. "That would never work," he says,

It not only worked, it went above and beyond. The idea evolved to a menu that features organic and natural food, under chef Helena Rizzo, chosen as the best chef in the world in 2014.

Avoiding red meat is something that Pedro Paulo Diniz will soon be able to leave behind. "Most meat sold in retail is contaminated with hormones and antibiotics. I will start eating it again when I know its provenance", he says. In this case, one of Rizoma's ranches.

At 5'8 and 134 pounds, the same weight he held as a racer, Diniz exercises and does yoga three times a week. He practices Ashtanga. "It's a fixed sequence, and I can do it wherever." Diniz is dating Aline Fernandes, a yoga instructor with 22,000 followers on Instagram, since last year. Her profile is full of different postures presented against spectacular backdrops and accompanied by beauty and health tips. "Nature is always guiding us towards healing, love, connection, and happiness," posted the former model born in Rio Grande do Sul.

Diniz says that yoga was what led him back to Toca and businesses with a socio-environmental impact. "I do yoga since 2003, and through it, I started searching for a healthier life".

The former racing driver also pedals a lot. He rides an electric bike to his office at Rizoma, in a co-working space in Vila Madalena, São Paulo - the same neighborhood where he lives. "The journey takes 10 minutes by car, three minutes by bike", he says. Diniz owns a plug-in BMW model, and needn't worry about gas during the truckers strike. "Just plug it in, done".

He lives in a sustainable building, in a bohemian, alternative neighborhood. "Living in the Jardins, I felt a prisoner at my own home, surrounded by walls and alarms. I didn't talk to my neighbors".

He went back to living in São Paulo after divorcing Tatiana Floresti, with whom started Toca farm. Now he lives two blocks away from his former wife, after a 10-year marriage.

They share custody of their children - Pedro, 12, and Catarina, 10 - born in the farm and whose education began at Toca's school, right along the children of the farm's workers.

When his first son was born, Diniz was very impressed with "An "Inconvenient Truth," Al Gore's documentary about the environment. "The movie motivated me, even more, to invest in sustainable businesses. What kind of world I would be leaving for my boy?"

Diniz wants his legacy to go beyond his family, Toca, and Brazil. He sees himself as a facilitator, connecting men, nature, and the market. "I always tell my children that I love to work with nature and to make it prosper, doing good business that helps in regenerating our planet."

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