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Biotechnology

More productive crops

New varieties of transgenic soybeans for the north and northeast of Brazil

Embrapa soybeans Some 64% of all the soybeans planted in the world come from transgenic cultivarsEmbrapa soybeans

The Brazilian Agricultural and Livestock Farming Research Company (Embrapa) has just launched two new varieties of transgenic soybean specially adapted for Brazil’s north and northeast regions. This year’s harvest of this crop in Brazil should reach an historic figure of 60 million tons, an increase of 2%, or 1.2 million tons over the volume harvested in 2006/2007. This well performing crop is due to many factors, among which are the favorable climatic conditions and the high technological level of Brazilian soybean farming. The two new varieties, also called cultivars, are important because soybeans are a crop that originate in a temperate climate, but in Brazil, because of traditional genetic improvement programs, they are increasingly found in low latitude regions close to the Equator. The states of the north and northeast currently represent a little over 8% of the Brazilian production of oil-producing seeds. The main producing region is the mid-west, with 48% of the harvest, followed by the south with 34%.

What differentiates the two transgenic cultivars from Embrapa, called BRS 278RR and BRS 279RR, is their resistance to glyphosate-based herbicides that are widely used by farmers to control weeds. These transgenic plants are not affected by the herbicide and do not die when it is applied. To acquire this resistance the varieties received a gene from another organism, the bacteria, Agrobacterium tumefaciens. According to agronomist José Ubirajara Vieira Moreira, a researcher with Embrapa`s Soybean Unit in Londrina, Paraná, the new cultivars use the same technology as Monsanto’s transgenic soybean, the commercial name of which is Roundup Ready or, simply RR. “We have a contract with the company to use this resistance gene in our cultivars”, explains Moreira. As they are genetically modified seeds they have undergone the regulatory process of the National Biosafety Technical Committee (CTNBio) so that this technology can be used and applied in Embrapa strains and cultivars.

According to Embrapa the new varieties have a productivity that is superior to that found in south Maranhão, southwest Piauí and north Tocantins, the main producing areas in the north and northeast. Field studies have revealed that these transgenic seeds produce on average 3,600 kg per hectare (kg/ha). In the case of BRS 278RR productivity was as much as 4,200 kg/ha. “Under ideal soil, climate and rainfall conditions the new cultivar showed all its potential. This happened in an upland area of the municipality of São Raimundo das Mangabeiras, in Maranhão”, says Moreira. According to the researcher the average productivity of soybeans from the northeast varies between 2,600 and 3,000 kg/ha.

The recently launched cultivars also have the so-called long juvenile period genes, which help the plant develop in low latitudes. These genes were introduced into the plant by means of Embrapa’s traditional genetic improvement process and not through bio-technological means. “The further north in Brazil the soybeans are planted the greater their tendency to flower earlier and have fewer productive advantages. Juvenile period genes prevent this happening. The vegetative growth period is prolonged making the plant bigger and more productive”, Moreira points out.

Controlling pests
BRS 279RR allows rural producers to harvest the bean more quickly and prepare the ground for a new harvest. An important factor in bringing forward the harvest is that in areas where there is a risk of Asian rust (Phakopsora pachyrhizi) the farmer uses less fungicide in fighting the disease. Another characteristic of BRS 279RR is its resistance to root-knot nematodes (Meloidogyne incognita and Meloidogyne javanica) that cause a common disease all over Brazil that attacks the plant’s root which in turn compromises the absorption of nutrients.

In 2006 before these new cultivars existed Embrapa had already launched two varieties of genetically modified soybean adapted to the soil and climate conditions of the north and northeast of the country; the BRS 270RR and BRS 271RR. “Our genetic improvement program is constantly evolving. Over the last ten years we’ve launched 24 different transgenic soybean cultivars”, says Moreira. According to the researcher the institution is working towards launching another type of transgenic soybean in Brazil, called Cultivance, the result of a partnership with German company Basf. The plant will be resistant to herbicides of the imidazolinone type and an alternative to the control and management of the weeds that attack crops. The cultivar still needs approval from the CTNBio but it should help farmers with the rotation of herbicides for better controlling weeds.

Embrapa is one of the leaders in the soybean seed market in Brazil, with currently around 35% to 40% of this sector, estimated at 800,000 to 1 million tons of seed. “Of all the seeds that Embrapa sells almost half are transgenic cultivars”, says Embrapa Soybean agronomist and researcher, José Francisco Toledo. Brazil is the second largest producer in the world of oil-bearing plants, second only to the Unites States, and it exports 75% of its production in the form of grain, oil or meal. Estimates indicate that transgenic soybeans already represent 60% of the national harvest.

The growing of genetically modified crops has increased significantly over the last 12 years according to agronomist Marcelo Gravina de Moraes from the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS). According to data provided by the researcher the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) has evolved in an unprecedented way, growing 67 times between 1996 and 2007. “This increase has meant that biotechnology is the most rapidly adopted agricultural technology of recent times”, wrote Moraes in an article for the Council for Information on Biotechnology, a non-governmental organization. According to the researcher from UFRGS the current growth in these crops, which are to be found in 23 countries, is of the order of 12% a year, which means an increase of 12.3 million hectares of land dedicated annually to GMOs.

“The number of transgenic soybean varieties is growing all the time, but the soybean with the RR gene from Monsanto is the only one widely used. Of all the soybeans grown in the world 64% are transgenic”, says Moraes. Soybean is the only crop in which the transgenic area exceeds the non-transgenic. In addition to Brazil, Argentina, the United States, Canada, México, Uruguay, Paraguay, Japan and South Africa also grow RR soybeans. Other countries consume these soybeans but do not grow them, as is the case with China.

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