With little if any sweat under the strong midday sun in early November, José de Ribamar Cavalcante Ribeiro from the state of Maranhão presents the new varieties of the guaraná plant (Paullinia cupana) that are growing in the Amazônia Ocidental experimental field of the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (Embrapa) in the town of Maués, the leading producer of guaraná in the state of Amazonas. Luzeia, one of the cultivars, is impressive for its high productivity and high genetic resistance to the most common diseases of this plant. Consumers will be very interested in this feature. The caffeine content is 4.6%, considered high for the guaraná plant.
The average caffeine content of the guaraná varieties consumed today is 3% higher than coffee (from 1 to 2%). Moreover, the stimulating effect from the caffeine in guaraná may last longer because of the tannins. Tannins account for 7% of the dry weight and help lower cell metabolism residues known as free radicals, which, in excessive amounts, are damaging to organs.
In field tests, some plants are more productive than this one, probably because of the microclimate at the experimental facility, and they produced up to 35 kilograms (kg) of fruit per plant, which in turn yielded up to 5 kg of roasted seeds. The BRS Maués, which until now has been the most productive variety, was launched in 2000 and is in widespread use. It produces upwards of 1.5 kg and can yield up to 3 kg of roasted seeds per plant according to Firmino José do Nascimento Filho, an agronomist from the state of São Paulo who has been working on genetic improvements to this species since 1983 and has dedicated staff at Embrapa working on the guaraná plant.
After six years of intensive field testing, José Clério Rezende Pereira, a plant pathologist at Embrapa, found that Luzeia is highly resistant to two fungal diseases that are common in the guaraná plant: anthracnose, which attacks the leaves and shrinks fruit production, and witch’s broom disease, which deforms the buds and blossoms. Another feature is the probable resistance to drought. Ribeiro, an Embrapa experimental field supervisor in Maués, sets his gaze toward the dry ground as he says, “We have had no rain in 20 days, and it appears that this variety is unaffected by the drought.”
In the field in 2014
This and three new types of guaraná plants, some even more resistant to disease, were launched in 2011 for use in the state of Amazonas. Beginning in January 2013, nurseries should start producing seedlings, to be sold starting in October to producers and planted by May, in the 2014 rainy season. If all goes well, harvesting of the black berries that look like eyes may begin three years after planting, with a good yield beginning in the fourth or fifth year.
Since 1976, when the evaluation and selection of more productive and disease-resistant guaraná plants began in response to declining productivity in the region, caused by more and more pests, Embrapa researchers set up a germplasm bank, accessed about 300 times (usually one access is for more than one plant). From this material, the 32 strongest ones were selected along with 19 new cultivars. They were evaluated for at least ten years in the field and transferred to producers beginning in 2000. The experts from Embrapa proposed a new form of propagation, not by seeds, as before, but by cuttings taken from branches of the healthiest and most productive plants as a way to reduce genetic variability, which may be harmful if excessive.
According to Ribeiro, the varieties the producers will obtain in 2013 should maintain the characteristics shown in the field tests since they have been monitored and have remained stable for 35 years. If the producers and consumers accept them, the new cultivars may boost the region’s current production of 250 metric tons per year. “The figure was supposed to be 1,000 metric tons per year,” Ribeiro says. He believes this level can be reached in three years as producers adopt more productive and pest-resistant varieties and improve growing techniques so that the plants produce more.
With this goal in mind, the Embrapa experimental team in Maués provides courses periodically to demonstrate improved planting, fertilization and pruning techniques to the 2,000 producers in the region, most of them small, with production below 600 to 800 kg per year. In 2011, according to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE), the average productivity of producers in the towns of Maués, Presidente Figueiredo, Itacoatiara and Urucará in Amazonas amounted to 206 kg per hectare (ha) of dry seed, below productivity levels in the state of Bahia, at 408 kg/ha. Today Bahia is Brazil’s leading producer of guaraná (60% of domestic production, with roughly 2,500 metric tons per year), followed by Amazonas (24%) and Mato Grosso (12%). According to the IBGE, the fruit that is harvested is used to produce soft drinks (44%), extract, syrup and powder (24.5%), in laboratories in general (21%), or exported raw (10.5%).
Firmino said he and his team try to offer alternatives to farmers based on information from field studies. “To achieve the highest productivity figures,” he says, “the producers would have to pay more attention to our recommendations.” Another possibility, currently under review, is the density of plants, which could be planted 4 meters apart and 4 meters between rows; this would amount to 625 plants per hectare instead of five every five meters with 400 plants per hectare.
Jesuits, Indians and physicians
Undoing established habits, however, is not easy. Ribeiro says that many producers see the lush plant and hesitate to prune, because doing so will form new offshoots. “The new branches are the ones that produce and the old ones do not,” Ribeiro insists. In the experimental field in Maués, with only basic care and without irrigation, which the farmers cannot use, Ribeiro’s crew reaps at least 9 kg of fruit or 1.5 kg of toasted seeds per plant, “five times more than the average producer!” Ribeiro and his crew tend to 5,000 adult guaraná plants that are in full production and 1,036 that are beginning to produce. He selected the most promising varieties and tested new fertilization and growing techniques. “There were 30 of us working in the field in the 1980s, but the vacancies were not filled.”
Moreover, a consensus is lacking on how to dry and roast the seeds that are harvested. Some growers dry them in the sun and roast them in ovens, while others use the traditional method: wood-burning ovens, in which the seeds are stirred constantly, about six hours a day, while they are slowly roasted. Guaraná growing began in Maués. At first the Sateré-Maué Indians, who live along the Maués River and its tributaries, called it Luzeia. In the 17th century, Jesuit missionary João Felipe Betendorf noted that these Indians, after taking guaraná, hunted for days and felt less hungry. In a historical retrospective of guaraná, Nigel Smith, from the University of Florida in the USA, and André Luiz Atroch, a researcher at Embrapa Amazônia Ocidental, reported that guaraná was used as a tonic, a stimulant, or to treat fevers, headaches, and diarrhea during the colonial period. In 1872, an English physician reported in the British Medical Journal that guaraná from Brazil was used for neuralgia and urinary problems such as blennhorrea and was used most often in France and Germany.
The use of guaraná from the Amazon in industrialized soft drinks and homemade beverages began early in the twentieth century, and today it is synonymous with energy. It is consumed plain or beaten with milk, fruit or eggs. More recently, there are reports that guaraná helps with curbing hunger and with weight loss. One of the few factories that make guaraná extract, used in various types of beverages, is operating in Maués and imports raw materials from other states to supplement local production, which at one time was the highest in the country.Republish