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Evaristo Marzabal Neves

The (ignored) social function of the Genome

The impact of the project X. fastidiosa reaches agribusiness

Accepting the invitation from the Scientific Board of Directors after the launching of the Fapesp Genome Project (14/10/97), I gave a presentation on the economic importance of the citrus agriculture in Brazil. At that moment in time the presentation was justified, since the largest scientific project which has ever taken place in Brazil was beginning and whose challenge was the genetic sequencing of the bacteria Xylella fastidiosa, the phytopathogenic responsible for variegated chlorosis of citrus fruits (CVC). In just over two years (06/01/2000) the researchers worked out the genome of the first phytopathogenic ever sequenced in the world and on the 21st of February the laboratories and scientists received, from the State of São Paulo, public recognition of the relevance of their completed work.

The media exalted the achievement but timidly explored its extensions and social contributions over time, which might not have caught the attention of the general public, unfamiliar with scientific research, much less with the term genome, and of course anxious for immediate solutions. In order to measure the effects on the relationship of social benefits to costs, it is necessary to go beyond the glorification of the achievement within the academic world. What makes it notable is to measure, over time, the social spread of its allocation value and distributive impacts, otherwise the population will not know why millions of dollars were invested in the mapping of a bacterium.

This sequencing is the first step towards the enormous contribution which scientific research gives to Brazilian agriculture, taking into account the production and social gains of productivity and the opening of a limitless number of perspectives for the prevention, environmental control and the correct monitoring of pests and diseases. Furthermore, it is of prime importance to anticipate and to measure, with hindsight, the direct and indirect impacts on the generation of jobs and activation of the employment market; in the rational occupation of the agricultural area, in overcoming non-tariff barriers (mainly technical and health ones) and the social appreciation of the land; in the correct maintenance and management of the environment; in the obtaining of hard currency and in the competitive substitution of importation; in the formation of capital, of income and the regional value adding; in the activation of the links of the production chain; fees, levies and taxes gathered and distributed within the municipalities; in the dynamic and regional development of other sectors of the economy.

The understanding will come later in terms of the social gains which are about to come. To explain the social function of the projects Genome FAPESP (Xylella fastidiosa), Functional Genome and Genome Xanthomones (citric cancer) to society, I have used the expedient of beginning by formulating the following question: suppose that the country had lost the war of scientific knowledge, of the control and combat of pests and diseases (in which is included CVC and citric cancer) in citrus agriculture, and that there was no longer a single orange tree, what would be the allocation and distributive effects on the economy of the country?

Perhaps it is in this way that one opens the pathway of diffusion, of the adoption of technology and the transference of science from the microcosm of the scientific world to the macrocosm of popular understanding. It hits upon the perception of a universe which will learn to wait and will begin to understand how much the country would lose in biosecurity, in the domestic allocation of productivity factors and foreign currency without the results of scientific research.

In this direction “with the poet going to where the people are”, certainly there will be the harvesting of the fruits of the tremendous social impact of the agricultural genome projects, in the agricultural business and in Brazilian society.

Evaristo Marzabal Neves, resident professor of ESALQ/ USP (Piracicaba, SP).