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USP 70

Productive ground

In a series of reports on the 70 years of the University of Sao Paulo, Pesquisa FAPESP traces the trajectory of the centenary “Luiz de Queiroz” College of Agriculture (ESALQ), that has changed the eating habits of Brazilians and today is a leader in biotechnology research

The roots of the century old “Luiz de Queiroz” College Agriculture (Esalq), a unit of the University of São Paulo (USP) that has become the main reference in the teaching of agrarian sciences in the country, are European. The academic concept, with buildings of refined architecture sprinkled throughout the fields for trials and experimentation, was inspired by the agricultural schools of Grignon, in France, and of Zurich in Switzerland, attended during the second half of the 19th century by Luiz de Queiroz (1849-1898), an extremely wealthy heir, born in the state of São Paulo. On his return to Brazil as a graduate in agronomy, he decided to establish a school following the mould of the Europeans. He purchased a farm to build it in the surroundings of the municipality of Constitution today known as Piracicaba, and asked for help from the republican government to construct the buildings. However, the grant was turned down. In order not to let the idea die, Luiz de Queiroz decided to donate the farm to the government with the condition that a school for the general public would emerge there. In 1901, it was to be founded as a practical school at the high school level, after the death of its idealizer, but respected the European dream. In 1907, the farm transformed itself into a park, a rare example of English country style in Brazil. The large lawns, tree-lined avenues with beautiful bends, and dense groups of trees at strategic points are today a joy of the urban environment of Piracicaba. The work was done to by the Belgian Arsênio Puttemans, also the author of the gardens at the Ipiranga Museum in São Paulo.

Transformed into an upper school and integrated into the structure of USP when the institution was founded some seventy years ago, the Esalq continued to drink from the European fountain. Its academic patriarch is the geneticist Friedrich Gustav Brieger, a German Jew who migrated to Brazil in the wave of foreign researchers who founded USP. Thus, it was within this scenario of a temperate country that a scientific pantheon of tropical agriculture was consolidated. Above all, during the first sixty years of activity, the Esalq led research that changed the eating habits of Brazilians. Many garden vegetables, since they were European varieties, produced well during the winter, but were in short supply and expensive during the summer. The Brazilian started to eat salad all the year round thanks to research into the genetic improvement of lettuce, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, onion, and eggplant at the Esalq. The institution played a key role in the development of varieties of corn, more nutritious and richer in amino acids. It is also in the research of the properties of soil and plant nutrition that transformed the Brazilian cerrado (savanna), before unpredictable for planting, into a granary of 30% of the production of grains. One cannot escape from the cliché: very often the Esalq was the salvation of farming for those in agriculture. Once, at the end of the decade of the 50s, a group of producers from the green belt around Mogi das Cruzes( a suburb of the city of São Paulo) of Japanese origin, took to the at that time state governor, Janio Quadros, an unprecedented request. They wanted the government to concede the right to full time occupation – and the respective increase in salary – to professor Marcílio de Souza Dias, the architect of research into genetic improvements. A legendary figure, in 2001 professor Marcílio was chosen as the Centenary Researcher at Esalq. Contrary to the normal accounts of an academic career, he lived in the fields, making plant crossings and evaluating the results. With scientific production in short supply, nor was he even following a doctorate course, governor Quadros promoted the professor.

The profile of the school has changed over the last few decades. For sure the teaching has continued at a very high quality. The six undergraduate courses offered (Agronomy, Forestry Engineering. Economic Sciences, Biological Science, Food Science and Environmental Management) are taken by 1,830 students. During the last university evaluation examination, Éverton Yoshiaki Hiraoka, from the Esalq, received the highest mark among all of the agronomy engineering students in the country. But the school is no longer an isolated producer of fine professionals, as it happened in the past. It shares the top in graduation with institutions such as the Federal University of Viçosa (UFV) or the units of the São Paulo State University (Unesp) in the towns of Botucatu and Jaboticabal. That type of field work in which professor Marcílio de Souza Dias distinguished himself has now gone on to be led by Embrapa, the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (where, indeed, hundreds of ex-students from Esalq work as researchers). The research put into practice at the Esalq now has space in emerging areas such as biological post control. The college developed a natural trap for the capture of moths known as Citrus Borer, which in the caterpillar stage attack citrus fruit. The trap reveals the degree of infestation of the citrus trees and points towards the time for the correct application of insecticides. This research was carried out by José Roberto Postali Parra, the college’s current director, and José Maurício Simões Bento, in collaboration with the UFV and the University of California, Davis.

The school has started to strongly invest in another vacation: post graduation, which has already conferred 5,300 titles of masters and doctorate since 1964, when the courses were established. Its sixteen programs, frequented by 1,117 students were responsible for the formation of 70% of the Brazilian doctorate degrees in agricultural sciences. On the campus at Piracicaba, during the decade of the 60s another research institution emerged, the Nuclear Energy Center for Agriculture (Cena), also linked to USP, but with its own administration. The result of this new strategy at the Esalq was the expansion of laboratories and the investment in frontiers of knowledge that do not always generate immediate applications. The most eloquent example lies in the area of biotechnology. “At the start of the 90s, we made the sensible decision to attract a group of young doctors who had come back from abroad, and with them we advanced in biotechnology”, says Raul Machado Neto, Esalq’s vice-director and president of the Research Commission. Supported through the Center for Research Support towards Research in Cellular and Molecular Biology for Agriculture, the researchers participated in the Xylella Genome, sugarcane, Xanthomonas, cancer, coffee and eucalyptus projects, among others.

For some ten years now the Esalq has been pioneering research into biotechnology applicable to animals. Today the Zootechnology Department is integrated into two major projects of genetic sequencing. One of them is the Chicken Genome, in partnership with the Embrapa Pig and Poultry. The project began some three years ago and has already identified various genes related to the muscular development of the chicken. The objective is to find the genetic reason that leads chickens to accumulate more protein than fat, with a view to improving the quality of meat. Another project is the Bovine Functional Genome Project being carried out with the collaboration of Unesp at Botucatu, funded by FAPESP and the Central Bela Vista Genética Bovina, a company that sells semen and bovine embryos. The project is now concluding the sequencing phase and will then go on in search of the identification of genes related to the resistance of parasites, reproductive efficiency and the quality of leather.

The only animal biotechnology laboratory to participate in the network that sequenced the genome of Xylella fastidiosa, the yellowing pest that attacks orange tree, was Esalq’s Zootechnology. “The opportunity to participate in the project in partnership with other institutions helped us to create competence in the genomics area, which now we share with other institutions”, says Luiz Lehmann Coutinho, an associate professor at Esalq and responsible for the laboratory, referring to the professors, researchers and post graduate students who have gone through Esalq. Lehmann is one of the researchers who arrived at the school at the start of the 90s, after having completed his masters and doctorate in zootechnology at Michigan University, as well as post doctorate studies in molecular biology. The laboratory does not live by basic research alone. Various genetic tests, previously only available abroad, are on offer to producers. Pig farming sends samples of their animals’ skin or blood to Esalq in order to research the occurrence of a gene related to the poor quality of the meat and another linked to the capacity to generate more offspring for each pregnancy. The test results determine the choice of pigs for reproducing. The laboratory also carried out DNA tests on cattle. For what reason? To guarantee that the bullock is really the offspring of recognized superior animals, as it has high commercial value. Errors in paternal diagnosis can reach as high as 30% on cattle breeding ranches.

Another project worth highlighting is the one involving genetically modified eucalyptus trees. A team from Esalq’s Genetics Department has managed to introduce into the eucalyptus tree – the raw material of cellulose – a gene from the pea linked to photosynthesis. The goal is to improve the capture of solar light, increasing the biomass of the tree and thus producing more cellulose. The company, Suzano de Papel e Celulose, which has interest in this investigation, has donated R$ 585,000 for the renovation and purchase of equipment of the Plant Genetics Laboratory (renamed as the Max Feffer Laboratory, the gentleman having been a pioneer in the use of eucalyptus for the production of cellulose and the son of the founder of Suzano, Leon Feffer). “The productivity of the eucalyptus could increase 2 to 3 percent and it would possible to obtain more cellulose with fewer chemical processes and reduced costs”, explains Carlos Alberto Labate, a professor in the Genetics Department and the laboratory’s coordinator. The first evaluations concerning the efficiency of the process should come out in 2005. The Esalq is waiting for authorization from the National technical Commission for Biosecurity (CTNBio) before planting the transgenic seedlings in the experimental fields. The laboratory has long-term objectives: to search for the genes involved in the formation and quality of wood. The interest of private enterprise in the critical mass generated by the Esalq is nothing new. But the partnerships, which have concentrated themselves in the area of technical assistance, are more and more sophisticated. In the eucalyptus research a product is being sought after – wood with more cellulose. And in order to achieve the goal, basic research was developed and then applied. “Things run together”, says professor Labate. “In order to achieve the application one needs to carry out basic research and the company that sponsors us knows this. Our science undergraduates and those doing their doctorate enrich their formation within this environment.”

The school has other celebrated partners. The Brazilian Mercantile & Futures Exchange (BM&F) funded the construction of the building to house Esalq’s Center for Advanced Studies on Applied Economics (CEPEA), with which it maintains an agreement for the production of agricultural indicators. Another piece of important work concerns the monitoring of  micro river basins, coordinated by Professor Walter de Paula Lima, from the Forestry Sciences Department in a convention with the Institute of Forest Studies and Researches (IPEF in the Portuguese acronym). This program began in 1987 and has established experimental stations in various states at the request of forestry companies such as Votorantim Celulose e Papel, Aracruz, Eucatex and Copebrás. The objective is to accompany the impact of exploration on the basins affected and to obtain indicators to assist the sustainable management of the forests. This work, which allows the companies to correct exaggerations in the environment, also produces scientific knowledge. With the information collected in an area explored by Votorantim Celulose e Papel, the Esalf and Ipef researchers concluded that the lack of calcium in an area of reforestation of eucalyptus could be resolved with a simple measure: leaving the bark of the trees, which is rich in calcium, in the soil instead of taking away the trees with the bark. “Our work allows the companies to calibrate their environmental indices”, says Professor Walter de Paula Lima.

To a certain extent the change in the profile of the Luiz de Queiroz College of Agriculture reflects the transformation of the labor market in agrarian sciences. Up until twenty year ago, the agronomists who graduated from the college had the classic profile of the extensionist, he who visits landowners and gives them individual assistance. Today this generalized formation is far from being sufficient. On the one hand, the proliferation of agronomy colleges turned the competition between the professionals more provocative. On the other, agriculture changed quickly, gaining productivity and economy of scale, and turned itself more dependent on technology. This demanded of the professional much greater specialization. For example, Esalq began to wager on precision agriculture, the concept that balances the bases of agronomy research. Precision agriculture suggests that each region of an area of planting is in need of certain quantities of fertilizer and corrective substances. This idea, which has been in existence for some time, took shape in Europe, especially in Denmark, due to a legal limitation in the application of fertilizers. By measuring the productivity of each piece of land, these needs were evaluated. Afterwards, more fertilizer was applied to the parts that yielded more (since they had removed more nutrients from the soil). Harvesting linked to a system of geo-processing by satellite (GPS), which marked the locations at which the production is greater and registers this performance on a map, which will serve to guide the application of fertilizer. Precision agriculture has already produced an economy of up to 30% in inputs  and is gaining ground in the United States and Europe. But, to a certain extent, it challenges all agronomy research, since it makes conclusions starting from the presupposition that the land will continue to have uniform needs for nutrients.

José Paulo Molin, a professor at the Rural Engineering Department, is leading research into precision agriculture at the Esalq, which, with the help of other departments and institutions, is looking to develop a technology that is cheaper and adapted to national reality. One of the alternatives is to limit out patches of land and evaluate the quantity of nutrients in each of them, without the necessity of GPS. Based on this information, maps for the spreading of fertilizer would be drawn up. “Precision agriculture has had its highs and lows in the United States, due to an excess of promises. It is not a panacea, but one cannot close one’s eyes to it”, says Professor Molin, who is taking part in the organization of the 1st Brazilian Precision Agriculture Congress, programmed for May.

The interest in mathematics and statistics, kicked off by the geneticist Friedrich Gustav Brieger during the 30s and broadened by Francisco Pimentel Gomes, today produces tools in the area of logistics. Professors and students of the Group for Research and Extension into Agroindustrial Logistics (Esalq-Log) dedicate themselves to creating information technology systems and mathematical models that will help in the management of the agronomy business. Led by José Vicente Caixeta Filho, the team developed, during the middle of the 90s, the pioneering the Freight Information System (Sifreca in the Portuguese acronym), making available the freight cost of fifty agricultural products in more than 5,000 transport routes. Before the advent of Sifreca, freight prices in Brazil were followed up by tables put out by the unions and transport companies. The values became the principal reference in the mathematical models for rationalizing agricultural cargo routes. The survey is published gratuitously in a small newspaper and is available on the site of Esalq-Log, at the electronic address:

The group works on other fronts. An exemplary case was that of the model created for a company that grows lilies, located in Holambra, in the interior of the state. The logistics of the business involved the best time to import the bulbs from Holland and to grow them in a greenhouse in the best quantity for a typical demand on commemorative dates. The mathematical model, with 120,000 variables and 400,000 restrictions, generated a daily map with importing of orders and production that led to an increase in income of 26% for the company, without any new investments. “Our challenge is to show to the agrarian sciences professionals that they can generate profits even with very simple mathematical models”, says Caixeta Filho.

Retired for some twenty years, the genetics professor Ernesto Paterniani, today an ombudsman on the Luiz de Queroz campus, which covers both Esalq and Cena, remembers with a certain amount of nostalgia, the times in which research was done in test fields, not in the laboratories or in front of computers. “We ran a much greater risk”, he jokes. “When we presented something new to be applied to a legume or a garden vegetable, it was immediately tested by thousands of farmers and, if we were wrong, the complaints came from all directions.” Professor Paterniani fears that the future of Brazilian agricultural research is being threatened due to the limitation on Embrapa’s resources and the scale of legal restrictions towards biotechnological products. He believes that the Esalq must better calibrate its efforts in research to as to prevent this from happening. “If Brazilian research were to stop today, this would only be felt a few years later, when a new disease or the productivity of other countries increased”, he says. Should that be the case, the farmers know where to look for help, as the Japanese growers who went knocking on the door of governor Jânio Quadros. •