From Importer to Exporter: How Plant Biotechnology Made Brazil a Major Agriculture Exporter
Interview with Adriana Brondani, Executive Director, Conselho de Informações sobre Biotecnologia (CIB), Brazil
Conselho de Informações sobre Biotecnologia (The Council for Biotechnology Information — or CIB), Brazil, is an association that shares accurate information about plant biotechnology and its benefits, especially to Brazilian agriculture and society. With the recent Olympics turning all eyes toward Brazil, we decided to learn more about how biotech crops have impacted Brazilian agriculture in just the last few decades. Hear more from Adriana Brondani, CIB’s executive director:
In 40 years, Brazil has gone from being a food importer to a food exporter. How did you get here?
Brazil is now the world’s second-largest producer of biotech crops, and in just a few decades, we have gone from being a basic food importer to one of the world’s largest food producers and exporters. Forty years ago, best practices in agriculture were developed based on the conditions found in temperate regions. These models were not suited to Brazil’s tropical climate, seasons, weather and land though. As Brazilians farmers, we realized that we needed to develop our own model of farming that would work best here — and that included investing in technology and agricultural innovation. This customized Brazilian model of agriculture, which included wide adoption of biotech crops, has greatly increased our country’s production of food, fiber and fuel.
How have the public and private sectors worked together to address the challenges in agriculture in Brazil?
The Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (EMBRAPA) was founded in the 1970s under the aegis of the Brazilian Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Food Supply. After EMBRAPA began investing in research and demonstrating success, the private sector took notice and began its own development. Now, we are seeing the results of partnerships between public organizations like EMBRAPA and the private sector. For example, 20 years of cooperation between EMBRAPA and BASF resulted in the biotech soybean Cultivance, a combination of GM soybean and tailor-made herbicides that is currently being commercialized. The Center of Technology in Sugarcane (CTC), a Brazilian company, partnered with EMBRAPA to develop a drought-resistant sugarcane that is currently in a testing phase. Public-private partnerships in biotech research now extend beyond plant applications. A cooperation between the University of São Paulo (USP) and the British company Oxitec was responsible for bringing the GM Aedes aegypti mosquito to Brazil. Approved by CTNBio (the regulatory body for biotech in Brazil) in April 2014, this technology can be used to control mosquitos, which are vectors for diseases such as Dengue fever, Yellow fever, Chikungunya fever and Zika virus.
What are the most promising technologies being developed today in Brazil?
Brazil has seen great production and financial success with biotech maize, soya and cotton over the last 20 years. Recently, Brazil has approved the first virus-resistant bean, which is a staple food in Brazil, and yield-enhanced eucalyptus, which will help with sustainable forest management and enable the production of more fiber using fewer resources. Both are expected to be commercially available soon. We are also waiting on approval for drought-tolerant soybeans and sugar cane and are in the advanced stages of research on lettuce with increased folate.
What role do technology developers have in addressing food insecurity and promoting technology?
Rio+20, the third United Nations International Conference on Sustainable Development held in June 2012, made it clear that we were going to have to produce more food with less resources like land and water. The agriculture industry continues to innovate the tools we need to make the most of existing farmland so that we can avoid deforestation and conserve protected areas and wildlife habitats. Using innovative agriculture techniques and new inputs is necessary to avoid the use pressure for more land in order to produce enough food, fiber and fuel for a growing population.
At times, we have encountered questions about plant biotechnology. This is where CIB Brazil comes into the picture — we’re committed to helping people understand the benefits the science brings to consumers, farmers, the environment, and Brazilian society — from its agriculture industry to its role in international trade, to employment to investment in education and innovation. By better understanding plant biotechnology and all the many benefits it can bring to society, individuals are better equipped to make educated choices about food.
What do you see happening with biotech and agriculture over the next four years?
Today, the bulk of our biotech crops are commodity crops — soybeans, cotton and maize. In the next four years, I anticipate a growing market for researches in non-commodity and specialty crops. As for the technology itself, we will see more combinations of traits in a single plant to make them stronger, more resilient, and more productive. Stacking traits in a biotech crop helps to make farming more efficient.
What can other countries learn from Brazil’s successes?
First, the only way we can meet production needs in a sustainable way is to see plant biotechnology as an important ally of agriculture. The plant science industry is a partner, not a threat, to farmers. Second, while you can learn a lot about innovation and agricultural technologies from other countries, it is worth the investment and research to develop local technology that is best suited to your specific agricultural needs.