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Agriculture driven by science

Esalq completes a century of teaching and research with important conquests

The 100 years of existence of the Luiz de Queiroz College of Agriculture (Esalq) can be looked at in two ways. The first of them is from the institutional angle, in which teachers, students and members of staff show rightful pride in belonging to a center in which teaching and research supplement each other in an exemplary fashion. The second, by the mere observation of the scientific conquests that have reverted to the benefit of society – it is no exaggeration to say that research carried out at Esalq is helping to do away with hunger in Brazil.

The most formidable example of this is the conquest of the cerrado (savannas). Until the beginning of the 60s, planting in this type of terrain was unproductive. Thanks, to a large extent, by the research carried out in Piracicaba, upstate São Paulo, where Esalq’s campus is located, central Brazil is today covered with soybeans, cotton and corn. The dissemination of the use of inorganic fertilizers, a better use of medicinal herbs, the biological control of insects and the development of agricultural machinery are other conquest that are important for the production of food.

The last five years have been particularly exciting for the researchers. In 1997, Esalq entered the age of the genome, with another ten universities and research institutes in the state of São Paulo. This was the year in which the Xylella fastidiosa bacterium, which causes the Citrus Variegated Chlorosis that attacks orange plantations, started to be mapped out. The campus in Piracicaba played a fundamental role in sequencing Xylella, a task that was concluded in 1999. If the researchers carry on in the same tone, the next 100 years will be even more effervescent.

Life and work of a pioneer
The life of the man who conceived Esalq, Luiz Vicente de Souza Queiroz, was marked by pioneers on all sides. His family is well known to anyone who lives in São Paulo, such is the quantity of relatives who have had streets in the city named after them. His grandfather was Brigadier Luiz Antônio, his father, Vicente de Souza Queiroz, the Baron of Limeira, and his mother, Francisca de Paula Souza. Still in his boyhood, Luiz de Queiroz was sent to study in Europe, in the company of his brother. When he was older, he studied at the agricultural and veterinary school at Grignon, in France, and then in Zurich, in what was German Switzerland in those days. He had to go back to Brazil when his father died, to run the lot that he had inherited, and he ended up looking after the Engenho d’Água farm, near to the then village of Limeira. At the time, he was only 24 years old.

Getting to know better the region where he had set himself up, Luiz de Queiroz immediately perceived the hydroelectric potential of the Piracicaba river, and decided to build a textile mill driven by electricity. In those days, it seemed like an impossible task, a dream of a schoolboy who had no idea of the country where he lived. The reason for skepticism was obvious: at the end of the 19th century, there was no machinery, turbines, railroad, sawmill, nor even technicians to set up the textile factory in the region. Luiz de Queiroz was not daunted. He imported equipment, technology and technicians. What he could not bring in from abroad, he set about improvising and making right there. The result was incredible. Piracicaba became one of the first cities in Latin America to have its streets lit by electric lighting.

His battles were waged on all fronts. Luiz de Queiroz had the streets of Piracicaba paved and trees planted in its squares. He also helped runaway slaves with guidance and money. Convinced of the importance for the country of having skilled labor to deal with crops and animals, he bought the São João da Montanha farm, three kilometers from Piracicaba, to set up a school of agriculture to measure up to the best he had known in Europe. He did not live long enough to see his work completed – he died three years before that, in 1898, at the age of 49 – but it was he who sowed the seed of the enormous forest that Esalq was to become.

Success in the field and in the classroom
The Practical Agricultural School of Piracicaba opened its arms to 11 regular students and three observers on June3rd 1901, the day the first lessons began. As the Polytechnic School already had a higher educational course in agronomy, it was decided that the Piracicaba school should just train technical staff. But it was transformed into the Luiz de Queiroz College of Agriculture (Esalq) in 1925, and was one of the pioneer units that made up the University of São Paulo (USP) nine years later. In the course of the century, there was no halt to the changes and innovations: Esalq was USP’s first college to offer post-graduate courses, and it is the one that has the highest percentage of full-time teaching staff.

The handful of pupils in 1901 multiplied as the years went by. The first graduate course to be established had graduated 8,700 agronomist engineers by January 2001. The 15 post-graduate courses have granted some 4,500 master’s and doctor’s degrees. This emphasis on scientific and technological education makes it possible to set up 70 research groups with over 600 projects, and is responsible for the fact that about 70% of doctors in the sphere of agricultural sciences have completed their studies at Esalq. In 1985, the Luiz de Queiroz Campus was founded, covering Esalq and the Center for Nuclear Energy in Agriculture, as well as the experimental stations Anhembi, Anhumas and Itatinga. All in 900 hectares in all, with 200 buildings – or 50% of the total area of USP’s territory.

To celebrate the school’s hundredth anniversary, Governor Geraldo Alckmin transferred the seat of the government of the state to Piracicaba on June 2nd and 3rd. 80 personalities connected to the school were honored by Alckmin with the São Paulo Medal for Scientific and Technological Merit, and he awarded Esalq the Árvore dos Enigmas trophy. These two honors were instituted last year. The first, to honor Brazilians and foreigners who have been outstanding in the field of science and technology in São Paulo. The second was created to pay homage to institutions. The researchers who worked on the sequencing of Xylella fastidiosa, for example, were honored in 2000. Among those who have received the medal on the occasion of Esalq’s 100 years was Joaquim José de Camargo Engler, the professor of the chair of the Department of Economy, Administration and Sociology and a director of the institution between 1982 and 1986, as well as mayor of the campus between 1985 and 1987. Since 1994, Engler has been FAPESP’s administrative director.