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Knowledge of the field

Embrapa completes 30 years of technological development for agriculture and livestock raising

EDUARDO CESAR Wheat: productivity has grown from 800 kg/ha, in 1970, to 2,000 kg/ha, in 2002EDUARDO CESAR

In times of Zero Hunger, the 30 years of Embrapa, the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation, ought to be very well celebrated. The reasons for the commemoration range from the evidence that the problem would be much larger without the results achieved by the company’s researchers, and also for the fact that the country has, at this moment, sufficient technologies and information to increase food production and to refine planting and livestock raising, in particular amongst the small rural producers. The path followed by Embrapa in the course of all these years leaves as its mark the development of hundreds of varieties of seeds, and techniques for handling and controlling pests adapted to all the regions of the country.

They were actions that have collaborated strongly towards an increase in the productivity of several basic crops, such as rice, which had its production between 1975 and 2000 increased by 120%; beans, 34%; and potatoes, 103%, according to a study carried out at Embrapa’s request by economists José Roberto Mendonça de Barros, a retired professor from the University of São Paulo, and Juarez Rizzieri, a professor at the School of Economy and Administration at the same university.

The study showed that the production of cows’ milk increased by 70%, and interference from seasonality (the differences of supply over the months of the year) has diminished in all the products of the basic food basket. Accordingly, the supply of food in all the seasons of the year is more regular, without brusque interference in the prices of the products. Prices, in fact, have fallen over the period under analysis. Taking the figures from the Economic Research Institute Foundation (Fipe), which measures the price indices in the state of São Paulo, the economists found that there had also been a sharp fall in the real value (after discounting inflation) of several products. Sugar fell 4.47%; beans, 13.39%; beef (round of beef), 5.82%; soybean oil, 8.06%; and chicken, 8.22%, on average a year.

In general, the prices of the basic foodstuffs fell 5.25% a year. “These gains in productivity have made possible the fall in prices for the consumer”, explains Rizzieri. They are conquests that certainly have had a big hand from agricultural research, coupled, of course, with the capacity for work, the commitment and the boldness of the rural producers.

A greater supply of food also avoids a danger that was one of the reasons for Embrapa’s creation in 1973, as a company linked to the Ministry of Agriculture. They were the times of the economic miracle, and Brazil was achieving an average growth of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of 14% a year, and needed to replace imports and to produce more food for a population that was becoming more urban. To do so, the military government invested in the country’s infrastructure, with the help of foreign loans, and saw agricultural research as the way out for getting technologies to allow productivity to be increased in the diversified types of soil and climates that exist in Brazilian territory. There was no point in importing techniques and seeds from other countries, as it had already been proved by the Campinas Agronomic Institute (IAC) in São Paulo and other equally important and occasional experiences, particularly in the southern and southeastern regions of the country.

Embrapa’s original mission was precisely to give nationwide breadth to research in the agricultural area, exploiting new farm frontiers. The work began with the company grouping together researchers from the old National Department of Research and Experimentation (DNPEA) into units spread over the country and making the research policy uniform. Today, the company is made up of 39 units spread over 20 states, plus the Federal District. It has 2,100 researchers, over half of whom with a doctorate, and only a small portion – which does not amount to 100 researchers – being graduates with no further academic degree. “The first measure after Embrapa’s creation was to invest heavily in scientists”, says agronomist Eliseu Roberto de Andrade Alves, a member of the company’s first board of directors and its president between 1979 and 1985. In 1974, there were already 317 researchers doing courses for masters’ and doctors’ degrees, 39 of them abroad.

For Alves, Embrapa’s next step was to select the priorities, in a country that was making headway in industrialization, was urbanizing itself, and needed to produce surpluses for export. Starting in 1974, research centers were adapted or installed at several spots in Brazil, and in accordance with the local needs. This was how were born, for example, Embrapa Cerrados, in Planaltina, in the Federal District; Embrapa Soybean, in Londrina (PR); Embrapa Eastern Amazon, in Belém (PA); Embrapa Beef Cattle, in Campo Grande (MS); and Embrapa Cassava&Fruits, in Cruz das Almas (BA).

To start with, the company focused on the production of grain. The first cultivars, varieties of plants adapted to a given region of climate and soil and that can bring resistance to some pests, were wheat and soya, still with experiments started in regional centers in the south of Brazil. Soya then began to turn itself into the country’s main farm product for export, and today it has acquired an importance to be compared with other crops in different periods of our history, like pernambuco wood, sugar and coffee. The grain is consumed in Brazil and exported to be used in the production of cooking oil and in the composition of feeds for poultry and pigs.

A great push behind this leguminous plant’s commercial ascent was also one of Embrapa’s first scientific and technological results, and now 40% of the weight of this grain is protein. Researchers from the company developed strains of bacteria of the Rhizobium genus, which removes the nitrogen from the air and transfers it to the roots of the soya plant. This technique followed the paths of agronomist Johanna Dobereiner (1924-2000), in the 50’s and the 60’s, at the DNPEA. This researcher was later transferred to Embrapa Agrobiology, in the town of Seropédica (RJ), where she also identified strains of nitrogen fixing bacteria for sugarcane. By adopting the bacterium inoculated into the soya seeds, it was possible to eliminate the chemical fertilizing that used to supply the plants with nitrogen.

“We identified the Rizhobium bacteria present in the soils and selected the more effectivestirps”, explains Amélio Dall’Agnol, Embrapa Soybean’s manager for the communication and business area. With the seeds treated with the correct lineages for each kind of soil, the producers started to save on the chemical fertilizing of the crop. According to a calculation by Embrapa, the producers started saving R$ 460 per hectare. Totting up the savings for the whole production of soya in the country, one achieves a cost reduction of some R$ 5 billion a year.

Another fundamental factor for the expansion of this leguminous plant from 1970 onwards was the development of varieties of seeds adapted to the tropical climate. “Before that, soya (a plant that originated in Asia), would only be cultivated in latitudes close to or higher than 25º”, Amélio recalls. This latitude corresponds to the country to the south of the state of São Paulo and north of Paraná. “Brazil broke this barrier and today soya is planted in the center-west, in Maranhão, in Pará and in Roraima.”

Also called cultivars, the varieties of any commercial plant, as in the case of the “tropical” ones of soya, are produced by crossbreeding (exchanging pollens) between plants that are more resistant to the climate of each region, a technique that today also makes use of molecular biology to identify genes of interest. In the course of all these years, Embrapa has developed various cultivars and has a collection of 5,000 types (genotypes) of soya, ensuring this crop great genetic variability. After they have been duly approved, the cultivars are passed on to foundations made up by producers who provide financial support for the development of the seeds and produce this input, for sale to the farmers.

At the moment, Embrapa is responsible for about 60% of the seeds used for planting soya in Brazil. The 2002 harvest achieved a production of 42 million tons of grain, accounting for 23% of the world production. Of this total, about 22 million tons were exported (as grain, meal and oil), generating an income of US$ 5.6 billion.

The main soya- producing region in the country (with 58% of the total, whereas in 1970 it only used to produce 2%) is also one of the new agricultural frontiers. Over the last last three decades, the Cerrado (wooded savanna) has turned into a major producer of grain. It is responsible for about 50% of the grain harvest, including soya, corn, rice, wheat and sorghum (a grass used in feed for animals), besides producing cotton, pineapples and tomatoes. Until the end of the 60’s, it used to be recognized, from the agricultural point of view, as being merely for pasture. Today, it continues to be suitable for this, and has some 40% of the country’s cattle.

Originally made up, to a major extent, of low-growing vegetation, low and twisted trees, the Cerrado has poor soil, needing to be corrected chemically for commercial farming to be carried on there. “The soil of the Cerrado is wretched, it has almost no organic material, phosphorus or micronutrients”, Amélio explains. “We developed a package for the region that included liming, with an application of lime to eliminate the toxic effect of the excess of aluminum present in the soil there.”

The other agricultural frontier conquered in the last few years was the semi-arid northeast. There, irrigation with the waters of the São Francisco River has made it possible for the central region of the semi-arid lands to turn itself into a fruit exporting center, covering land in a total of 600,000 hectares of the states of Bahia and Pernambuco. For the region and for the rest of the country, the big surprise came at the beginning of the 80’s, with the planting of a grape right in the hot and dry northeast, in the region of the São Francisco Valley, which has as its centers the towns of Petrolina (PE) and Juazeiro (BA). The news acquired international prominence, and today 95% of local production is exported.

The semi-arid has also been adapted to be a good field for planting mangoes. Together with the grape, the two fruits represent for the country US$ 65 million in sales abroad. “Of the total exported by Brazil, 85% of the mangoes come from the São Francisco Valley”, says Paulo. Besides its contribution towards implanting this crop in the economy of the region, Embrapa also developed a product that neutralizes the effects of the latex from the mango tree on its own fruit. At the moment of harvesting, when the tree exudes the latex, dark patches appear straight away and spoil the look of the fruit, creating great losses when it comes to exporting. The neutralizer of the patches produced by Embrapa is efficient and has proved to be more advantageously economically that the imported product used up until now. With a mere 6 kilos of the product, 50 tons of the fruit can be treated, while the imported product treats only 15 tons.

The fight against pests has allowed Embrapa to make another fruit viable. This time in the Amazon basin, a region that is short of agricultural research, which, at the same time, has a rich biodiversity in fragile soil and a damp climate with abundant rain. The fruit is the cupuassu, native to the region and more and more sought after by the domestic and foreign market to produce sweets and ice creams. Embrapa’s researchers created the means for making cupuassu cultivatable and launched four cultivars of the cupuassu tree that are resistant to the witch’s broom disease, malady that reduces the production of fruit by 30% and can even kill the tree. These varieties are clones, produced using species that are resistant to the disease.

The development of technologies by Embrapa covers a long list of products and processes, and has not been restricted to the areas of the agricultural frontier. One example comes from the traditional apple-growing area in the states of Rio Grande do Sul and Santa Catarina. Researchers from the region have already reduced by 25% the application of insecticides in the plantations. The main technique introduces into the planted area traps with synthetic sexual hormones that attract the insects and kill them. The reduction in spraying with agrochemicals is also present in the potato and tomato plantations. Embrapa has developed a piece of equipment that, set up in the field, advises the level of humidity that facilitates the appearance of fungi. Spraying at the right time reduces the use of fungicides by 30%. With tomatoes, savings amount to as much as US$ 300 per hectare, and, with potato, producers avoid spending US$ 90 million a year.

With traditional crops like wheat, the use of new cultivars increased per hectare (ha) productivity. “In 1970, the crop would yield 800 kg/ha; in 1990, 1,500 kg/ha; and in 2002, 2,000 kg/ha”, says researcher Pedro Luiz Scheeren, from Embrapa Wheat, in Passo Fundo (RS). In another traditional crop, like corn, which grew 102% in productivity between 1975 and 2000, Embrapa developed cultivars that have more protein. They are types of corn with levels of proteins and amino acids 50% higher than the common kind. Besides enriching human nutrition, these qualities lead to a 2% reduction in the final cost for producing poultry and pork.

In livestock rearing, the company’s main development was cultivars of plants for fodder, which serve to feed the cattle in all regions of the country. In the semi-arid area, for example, a system was developed for cattle and goats that couples the rational usage of the caatinga (scrubland) with plants cultivated to resist drought. This fodder can be kept dry in silos, to be served in periods of more prolonged lack of rain. In pig breeding, by crossbreeding between several races, Embrapa managed to get two varieties of pig that have 40% less fat, the reason for which they a called light pork. The first variety, launched in 1996 by Embrapa Swine&Poultry, in Concórdia (SC), is now produced in 12 states and accounts for 12% of the market for this kind of meat.

In recent years, Embrapa has also made headway outside the field, developing technologies that have no direct relation with the farmers, but which bring benefits both for agroindustry and for environmental planning and protection. In these areas, two cutting edge technologies were recently used by researchers from the company: satellite images and polymer conductors. In the first case, Embrapa Satellite Monitoring, from Campinas (SP), pieced together a photograph, seen from space by the Landsat satellites, of each Brazilian state. They are maps with a definition of the territory at 30 to 90 meters per pixel (point) on the computer screen. They provide details of the natural resources and the impacts of rural and urban activities, making ecological and environmental zoning easier and helping in the planning of such activities as ecotourism.

In the case of polymer conductors, they were used in making sensors capable of identifying and differentiating types of wine and of water, besides helping in monitoring the presence of heavy metals in rivers and water sources. The apparatus, called the electronic tongue, was developed by Embrapa Agricultural Instrumentation, in São Carlos (SP), and enjoyed the collaboration of researchers from the University of São Paulo, Embrapa Grapes&Wine, and the Food Technology Institute (Ital) of Campinas (SP).

The electronic tongue was patented by Embrapa and adds to another 168 patents (or patent requests) registered over the last 30 years. 54 of these were requested abroad. In 1998, the company created a secretariat for intellectual property that helps researchers from all the units to formulate their patents and does the licensing of the products.With so many technological achievements, one has to wonder how Embrapa transfers this information to those who are working in the field and in agroindustry. The answer is split into several fronts. The most common one is by way of consulting the units themselves, in person, by telephone, or by the Internet, in the Service for Attending to the Citizen (SAC). “We also pass them on to public and private bodies that disseminate the information, besides having meetings and putting training into effect for technicians and farmers”, explains Eliseu Alves, the former president of the company.

Passing on the information is fundamental in the case of family farming, made up of farmers who often have difficulties in getting more sophisticated technical support. It is on this segment that Embrapa has been concentrating in the last few years, to try to stabilize family farming, which accounts for 35% of the country’s production, following the success of agribusiness, which is capable of hiring technicians, agronomists and veterinarians, and so to obtain information to develop their businesses more easily. Adding up the two sectors, they generate today 20% of Brazil’s GDP.

The view of concentrating on a more viable and profitable family production was documented in the company’s Social Balance Sheet, published in 1997 and reaffirmed in 2001. One excerpt from this latter document expresses the challenge that Embrapa faces at this historic moment. “The small producers were capable, on their own, of overcoming the obstacles that lead them to abandon the countryside and make for the outskirts of the big cities. They need assistance from the State. It is they who rural settlers, the caboclos from the Amazon, the natives and the small farmers who feed themselves with what they reap from the land.”

To do this work, the company can rely on a fundamental resource: respectability. “This it is possible to feel when we are collecting in the field”, says researcher José Valls, from Embrapa Genetic Resources and Biotechnology, a specialist in the species of peanut plant of the Arachis genus, the same as the commercial peanut. “When we say we are from Embrapa, right away we hear: ‘come in, come in, come in’. Without much explanation being needed.”

From biodiversity to transgenics

Animal and plant genetic diversity of socioeconomic importance has the right address here in Brazil. And that is Embrapa Genetic Resources and Biotechnology, formerly Cenargen, which is located alongside the company’s head office in Brasilia. Founded in 1974, it was one of Embrapa’s first units. To start with, the center specialized in collecting and keeping the genetic material of species that may serve for genetic improvement programs, as in the production of new varieties or races and in the maintenance of the rich biological diversity for future populations.

There are seeds, DNA samples, semen and embryos. Kept in cold chambers, in vitro in laboratories or in the field, there are over 83,000 plant specimens. They represent 690 species, which include, soya, for example, and uncultivated and medicinal plants like ipeca and jaborandi. Recently, Krao Indians, from Tocantins, recovered varieties of corn used by their forebears, which had been collected by researchers from Embrapa in the 1970’s.

In the animal sphere, Embrapa preserves, on special farms, 33 races that have few specimens in the country. So amongst cattle, are the national polled and the pantanal polled. The Pantanal (swamplands) is also the environment where a race of horses is preserved. In the northeast, there are nuclei where the mule and the blue she-goat are preserved. In Rio Grande do Sul, there is the woolly creole ewe, and in the north, on Marajó Island (PA), there are two rare races of buffaloes, the carabao and the bay. Besides characterizing the material that is collected, Embrapa Genetic Resources has done the work of identifying diseases and controlling plant material that comes into the country or goes out, whether for commercial reasons or for research. Last year, for example, researchers detected a fungus present in samples of wheat imported from Russia. It was only after it had been eliminated with fungicide that the wheat could be unloaded from the ships.

In the mid-1980’s, the researchers started to adopt molecular biology techniques. “We began to identify markers in the molecules of the plants and speeded up the process of improving varieties, making it easier to identify genes of interest”, says Luiz Antônio Barreto de Castro, the head of the unit.

The next step was to begin the work with transgenic plants, as yet in an experimental manner, in 1986. Today, Embrapa is waiting for a definition on the use of these plants in Brazil and has three new products. A papaya that is resistant to the virus that causes ring spot, a potato that is also resistant to a virus, one that causes deformations and reduces the number of tubercules, and a bean that has become immune to golden mosaic, another viral disease. “We introduced a gene of each virus into the DNA of each plant. This gene expresses the protein replicase, which works to reproduce the microorganism. When the virus goes onto the offensive, it ‘thinks’ that the plant already has the protein and does not therefore secrete this substance, so that it does not multiply”, researcher Francisco Aragão explains.

The plants are undergoing tests, in accordance with the rules of the National Biosecurity Commission (CTNBio). Another conquest of the Biotechnology unit was a cow, which was given the name of Victoria, cloned by the nuclear transfer technique. Victoria is the first step towards the multiplication of cattle of a high genetic standard.

Clayton Campanhola: Advances in information

Agronomist Clayton Campanhola took up the post of Embrapa’s director-president with the objective of maintaining the company’s technological performance and of extending the knowledge built up over these 30 years to the poorer farmers. He has been a researcher at Embrapa Environment, in Jaguariúna (SP), since 1985, and he headed the unit between 1990 and 1998. Campanhola talks below about this challenge.

How do you analyze Embrapa’s performance in these 30 years?
– Since its creation, Embrapa has been very concerned with the question of productivity and the supply of foodstuffs. At the time, there was the idea that that would be a very large growth in the population and that there would be a shortage of food. Another concern was to reduce the regional imbalances. Embrapa promoted this research and, obviously not on its own, has fulfilled this role very well, particularly until the beginning of the 90’s. In its first 20 years, Embrapa brought the results expected of it. We made great headway in productivity and in the exploration of new areas and frontiers.

And from the 90’s onwards, what happened?
– Credit started to get scarce, and at the time of the Collor government we even had credit at market rates for agriculture, making it difficult to invest. Then, we had scarce credit and a demand for technology. The markets were set free, and there were important falls in the production of cotton and wheat. This rather dismantled research in some products. All this meant that Embrapa had to seek alternatives, including the raising of funding. To do so, contracts were signed with private enterprise, such as for the production of seeds, which it hands over and gets royalties for. In addition, it makes money by providing services, laboratory analyses, as well as also competing for getting public funding, including from FAPESP.

What are the challenges under this new government?
– What we are setting out to do is to work with family farmers, particularly those who have difficult access to technology. We are going to work with a territorial concept, which is more than one municipality, and, there, Embrapa would be one of the agents for development, not just for research. In a territory of very poor regions, the problem is not only technology, there is a lack of everything.

In practice, has the focus of the company’s work changed, or has it just broadened?
– We have to keep up the development of technology for large producers, for commodities and for family farmers integrated with the market. We want to reach farmers who often do not have any production, not even for subsistence. Just in Rio Grande do Sul, for example, there are over 300,000 groups of family farmers below the poverty line. These people do not appear, they have no power of organization at all.

How will technology be taken to these farmers?
– We want to stimulate researchers who have the profile and the willingness to work with family farming. Instead of generating technology and transferring it, we are going to start the work by discussions with the farmers and making a diagnosis together with them.

How is Embrapa going to take part in the Zero Hunger Program?
– Chiefly, in order to attend to regions where there is no supply of foodstuffs. Our proposal is to stimulate the local production of foodstuffs. And family farming is more inclined to this process, because it works with smaller areas, making it easier to produce for the local community. The Inter-American Development Bank (IADB) is willing to put up US$ 1 million for us to start this work.

What is the company’s posture going to be in the light of the polemical subject of transgenic organisms?
– Embrapa’s role, following the principle of caution, is to generate information. How is this information generated on the impact on the environment, the impact on health? First, you have to have methods and protocols. There is a project approved under the previous administration on biosecurity, which has the aim of analyzing the transgenic organisms with which Embrapa is working and carrying out studies to see, for example, the risk of cross pollination, etc. We are in a tropical country, where there is great biodiversity, we need to be very careful, because the situation is different from other countries.

And the question of organic farming?
– Embrapa took a long time to go into this area. It’s a segment that is growing fast in Brazil, at rates of 30% a year since 1999. We have proposed to intensify researches into organic crops. There is the environmental aspect at the back of it, but there is also a differential in income. Organic foodstuff is worth more.