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Brazil’s Agro Research Czar’s Dream: Attune Technology and Environment

Pedro Antonio Arraes PereiraPedro Antonio Arraes Pereira, the Brazilian researcher and engineer  who assumed the presidency of the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (Embrapa) this month, has plans of expanding the scope of operation of the Brazilian institution, which already is a world’s giant in tropical agricultural research.

Aware of the fact that the company will be unable to meet all of the requests for opening knowledge transfer offices abroad, placed by countries in the most exotic regions of the world Arraes plans to establish an international training center in the Brazilian capital, Brasília.

In an interview, he makes it clear that the project is still an idea, but believes that it may come true. The mission of the center would be to provide theoretical training to researchers worldwide. The company’s units would then provide practical training.

In the field of research, Arraes claims that the priorities of Embrapa, during his administration, include fighting soybean rust, which causes huge losses to Brazil, have plants absorb the inputs with greater efficiency, taking into consideration that the country has a deficit in fertilizers, and recover degraded areas so as to expand Brazilian agriculture without cutting down forests.

The new president of Embrapa, who holds a postdoctorate in Genetics, believes that genetic improvement is one of the best paths to continue producing foods in spite of global warming, and states that one of his dreams is to witness harmony between agricultural technology and environmental preservation.

“A sustainable, thriving production that meets the principles of sustainability,”he describes. Read below the main stretches of his interview:

What will be the priorities for Embrapa in your administration?

Embrapa is a very large company, almost like a transatlantic in open sea, and many and many miles are required for any change to happen. Thus, this administration will be geared towards the continuation of work. We have got a very interesting research portfolio and some actions need consolidation.

Take the international issue, for instance. We have got two pillars, one of which is the Labex, consisting of virtual laboratories in the United States, in Europe and now in Asia, in Korea, that will be maintained and strengthened. And then we have got the other pillar, which is technology transfer, in Africa, South America and Central America.

In this area, Embrapa’s operation overlaps with Brazilian foreign policy. Wherever the president (Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva) goes, he talks about Embrapa a lot. This is good to us, but it also leads to some problems, such as excess demand. Therefore, one of our ideas is to put together some structuring projects (larger and longer lasting), particularly in Africa.

We are setting up a partnership with the Jica (Japanese International Cooperation Agency) for restructuring research and technology transfer in Mozambique, establishing a structuring project there which should last four to eight years. We want to wave a few structuring flags in Africa so that, four years from now, we may say: this was the contribution of Brazil to African development.

Is the aim to set up an office in Mozambique in partnership with them?

No, the idea is to put together a project, make an assessment of the local situation, of the local needs, and of course Brazil, Embrapa, may contribute a lot when it comes to training. But it would not be merely an isolated action, as is often the case. Many countries ask for us to visit, give a lecture, showcase a certain technology, which is an isolated action. For Mozambique, however, it would something structuring. We are thinking of selecting two or three counties ad carrying out this type of larger project, so that we may have more consistent results in the future.

With regard to research, we have a very interesting portfolio, but we must address some priorities. One of them is the issue of soybean. Obviously, we already have a series of projects addressing this issue. Soybean rust generates losses of 2.8 billion reais (US$ 1.4 billion) to Brazil. Thus, we are going to analyze whatever projects we have underway and see what we may add in order to solve the problem a little faster.

Another important matter is the issue of inputs, particularly fertilizers. Of course, exploration does not depend on Embrapa. This is not our area. It is our area, however, to create mechanisms, through nanotechnology and other techniques, for plants to be able to absorb these inputs more efficiently.

The third issue concerns degraded areas. Brazil has a huge number of hectares consisting of grazing land – and other areas – that are degraded, but may be used. We possess very interesting technologies (for improving them), such as crop-cattle integration, in which we already operate quite strongly.

And now there is also the integration of crop, cattle and forest. This is another area in which we may have a very interesting impact, increasing grain production in Brazil without cutting down one single tree. And I think that it may lead to carbon compensation as well.

Embrapa now has foreign laboratories in the United States, Europe and Korea?

We have not even started in Korea yet. We are going to start operating there within a month. Our colleague is heading to South Korea, to their unit of Embrapa. It is called a virtual laboratory because we do not have any physical structure in any of those places. We work with local partners. Basically, it consists of cutting-edge research. Because, you know, science is global and it is important for us to be present at these advanced laboratories so we may know where agricultural research is headed, for us to retain our position of excellence in tropical agriculture. This is much easier nowadays due to the credibility that Embrapa enjoys in this field. So, it is a win-win partnership.

With regard to technology transfer, Embrapa has an office in Ghana and another in South America?

Aside from Ghana, we have an office in Venezuela. But these are completely different altogether. We have a debt with Africa. And this debt concerns not only the issue of slavery, which has been mentioned many times. There is also the issue of all tropical pastures, which are of African origin. These came to Brazil by means of some international centers, were improved and now provide food to the world’s largest herd, which is ours. So, it is time for us to return a little of this knowledge and other knowledge that came from Africa, by transferring some of the improvements that we have achieved, so that they too may develop.

Will some new office be opened for technology transfer?

There is one being studied in Central America, in Panama. Things have not been defined yet. There is a possibility, but it is not certain yet.

Many Arab countries have shown interest in housing Embrapa offices, from Sudan to Qatar. Are these being considered?

The problem is this: we can only take one step at a time. Many countries are requesting offices, but this is not the only tool for cooperation. We need to have some offices – this is a very intelligent concept – but we also need to consolidate the existing offices. Each of the offices that we open takes some time to consolidate, to have financial autonomy, so that our expenditure is not too high and we may then think of taking another step.

Otherwise, nothing whatsoever becomes consolidated. That, however, does not mean that we cannot have partnerships. There are many reasons why Embrapa is the power that it is today, but one of them is that thirty years ago, the visionaries who founded Embrapa decided to send 1,500 youths out to the best universities in the world. One of them was me. And that is what caused this boom. Embrapa has good laboratories, great buildings, but its talent resides in its employees, in the intelligence that we have here.

This is a primordial factor. Thus, we are holding talks with the president of the Republic to put together an international training center for tropical agriculture in Brasília. The focus would be solely theoretical and each of the Embrapa units would also make their contribution. For the time being, however, it is just an idea. It is very likely to come to be in the short term, but for now it is just an idea.

Instead of Embrapa going abroad, other countries might then come to Brazil?

The people in Sudan, for instance, we might identify their shortcomings, and then they would come over to receive training, short-term, medium-term training, and then they would head on to our centers, rice, bean, cattle, poultry centers, to work on the practical aspects.

And how do you evaluate what we already have abroad, particularly in Africa, which is a continent that houses Arab countries?

Have you ever been to Africa? (I have been to Tunisia) Tunisia is somewhat different. If you go further to the south of Africa, countries are completely different from one another, with huge land ownership problems, they have a series of issues that we in Brazil do not have. There, in certain places, the land belongs to the tribe. What we are doing there at the moment is some very isolated actions.

There is joint work with (construction company) Odebrecht, it has a farm in Angola to which we have brought several cultivars of corn, bean, rice. They are creating prototype fields. That is having an interesting impact. There are some initiatives turned to ethanol, there are people interested in small ethanol manufacturing plants, in sugarcane production technology.

The latter is taking place in Ghana. This project (for ethanol in Ghana) is going to export alcohol directly to Sweden. There are other things as well, there is a cassava flour factory (in Ghana). We have transferred certain things, but they still lack impact. That is why I mentioned the issue of having structuring projects, by means of which we may truly exert a positive, large impact.

Are these international offices or laboratories economically viable?

In our high-technology laboratories, we have the cost of paying for the personnel. Usually, the research is paid for by the United States or by the European countries, but the cost of the personnel is Embrapa’s. Obviously, it is not possible to live in the United States with the salary that one lives with in Brazil, one needs a scholarship to complement one’s wage.

There are costs, but what those laboratories have already sent over to Brazil, in terms of technology, probably exceeds those costs a hundred times. In the case of other offices, Venezuela, for instance, is self-sufficient with its projects. In the case of Africa, we pay for the personnel there, but we hope that with time the office may consolidate itself and become self-sufficient as well. That is our initial idea.

Is the adaptation of agriculture to global warming a concern for Embrapa?

It is definitely a concern. We are working with scenarios for the next 50 years, we have put together different scenarios for agriculture, by increasing (temperature) by 2, 3 or even 5 degrees (Celsius). And then we have a very interesting zoning work. With regard to coffee culture, for instance, we have defined where it would be more viable if the temperature were to increase by two degrees.

This was basically done with all of the cultures that we have. Scenarios. With that in our hands, we can take certain measures, in terms of improvement of the soil, increasing organic material to reduce the effects of the lack of water or of the increase in temperature. On the other hand, we also have genetic improvement work, seeking materials (seeds), corn, soybean, bean, rice, so that they may be a little more tolerance to drought, so that they may bear higher temperatures and use less water.

The Brazilian semiarid produces despite the drought. But there they have small-sized, subsistence-oriented agriculture. Would the semiarid be able to produce large volumes, so that it may export, or is that not viable for the region?

Currently, something extremely interesting is taking place, not just in the semiarid, it is happening all across Brazil, but especially in the semiarid: goat farming. There (in the semiarid) goats are everywhere. But there are no slaughterhouses, they do not know how to cut the meat, for instance. So Embrapa is conducting a survey of the problems involved in goat farming, along with state companies, research companies, assessing how the bottlenecks might be solved. Goat farming can be a solution for raising the income of those farmers. There is a series of works along these lines, they encompass the entire goat farming chain, and they may improve the income and the life of the people there.

Some years ago, the possibility of Embrapa receiving private investment was contemplated. Is it going to happen?

As a matter of fact, we need a change in our statutes, particularly in the international area. The law project by which Embrapa was established provides that it may operate in the entire national territory. That really hampers our offices in Venezuela and in Africa. We are required to do financial gymnastics in order to transfer the funds. Therefore, this law project must be changed, the same as it was changed for (state-owned oil company) Petrobras, (state-owned aircraft manufacturer) Embraer, so that we may also operate outside of the national territory.

The problem is, it is a political issue. We will draft a law project and forward it to the Congress… we know how it goes in, but we do not know how it will come out. An attempt was made shortly ago so that Embrapa could have greater managerial flexibility, by obtaining funds from companies and implementing projects alongside the private initiative.

And it was misunderstood, people said that it was about privatization. Thus, we must wait until the political moment is right, work with the leaders, explain what our goals are to everyone. Of course, Embrapa needs to be a public company, so that it belongs to the Brazilians. It needs to be a public company, but it also needs a little more agility in certain areas.

What is your greatest dream for Brazilian agriculture?

My first dream is for agriculture to lose this ideological connotation that sometimes surrounds the size of properties. Agriculture is one single thing. I also dream of us achieving harmony between technology and environmental preservation. I believe that we will get there. This is a far-reaching dream, but I think Embrapa may provide us with the tools for attaining it.

I believe that Embrapa has already accomplished a lot, and not only Embrapa, but the entire Brazilian agricultural research system, which encompasses state-level companies, the IAC (Campinas Agronomical Institute), Iapar (Agronomic Institute of the State of Paraná), this set, this network has provided Brazilian society with quality, low-cost food. So what do we need to do now? We need a sustainable, thriving production based on the principles of sustainability.



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