Brazil produces almost 150 million tons of grain in 50 million hectares, and it multiplied grain production by four in the last four decades. It can double again that figure without destroying the Amazon or the Cerrado. Here’s how.
This started in 1965, when Brazil established its first law to regulate the commercialization of seeds. When the Brazilian Enterprise for Agricultural Research (EMBRAPA) was created in the mid seventies, Brazil started training plant cell, molecular, and developmental biologists. Then Sectoral Funds were created in the ’90s for areas such as biotechnology and agribusiness. Without those developments, the seed industry would not have flourished in Brazil, and this industry was essential for biotech crops later developed.
When Herbert Boyer expressed an insulin gene in bacteria, I was a freshman PhD student studying plant physiology at UC-Davis, being funded by EMBRAPA. That achievement alerted us that the world was going to change. Genetic engineering was the most important science discovery, after the genetic code itself.
When I returned to Brazil, I was hired by EMBRAPA in 1981 to build agricultural biotechnology at a research center called CENARGEN in Brasilia. It was eventually named the National Research Center for Genetic Resources and Biotechnology. At this point, not one plant had been engineered, and when, in 1985, Brazilian scientists visited Europe to discuss biotech, we had nothing to offer.
Twenty-five years later when we came back to the same institutions, everything had been modified. Now we can express any gene of any organism in plants, and plant molecular biologists team up with plant breeders to create plants for the tropics. When the necessary genes are not available, we settle partnerships with gene companies. Also, EMBRAPA established the Foundation Seed Program, inspired by the US system, and this offers transgenic seeds to companies, big and small. This means that even small companies can compete if the quality of the seed is good.
Scientists in Brazil in the future hope to make grasses that fix nitrogen, so that poor people do not have to buy urea to use as chemical fertilizer, which pollutes the soil and the water. EMBRAPA scientists will release the first green beans engineered to become resistant to the Golden Mosaic Virus, using RNA interference technology.
Few countries made use of the gene revolution, particularly as related to developmental biology, to advance agriculture as we did in Brazil. We verified that genes do not have to be transferred as transgenics require, because genes are common to all species. The strategy is to release genes, such as the anti-fungic dermaseptin peptides found in frogs, to work as anti-fungic peptides in soybeans. This concept is called intragenic by Carlos Bloch, a scientist from EMBRAPA, which today is the largest of its kind, with offices in the five continents.
That’s solid progress, but the question is, why did it take so long to see biotech crops released in Brazil? We had a biosafety law in operation since 1995, but literally lost 10 years disputing the judiciary in Brazil, which took sides and made political decisions against science and scientists.
After 2005 everything changed. A new biosafety law stimulated the combination of tropical genetics and biotech so much that Brazil is second only to the US in biotech crop production. We have few plants entirely engineered in Brazil, but Brazilian corporations take advantage of our breeders’ expertise and release the best crops for all Brazilian biomes. Still, the gene revolution has not resolved a few important things.
We still have not produced plants that can defend themselves against bacteria and fungi. This technology is available in the US and at the Fraunhofer Institute in Germany. Few institutions have reliable genes to generate plants resistant to drought and to soil aluminum toxicity that together affects more than 80% of tropical soils.
There is work to do, but Brazil can make the gene revolution work in the same direction as the green revolution did decades ago, by the hands of Norman Borlaug with more powerful science tools available.