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Brazil’s Search for Transgenic Drought-Resistant Soy, Bean, Cotton, Sugarcane and Corn

Sugarcane plant at Brazil's Embrapa Sugarcane plant at Brazil's Embrapa

Sugarcane plant at Brazil's EmbrapaYou know that crop landscape where corn stems grow pretty and green, ears of corn packed with grains, growing ripe at the right time? In Brazilian agriculture, especially among scholars, it is believed that in the future, this type of scenario will no longer be exclusive to regions such as Rio Grande do Sul, Paraná, Mato Grosso or other Brazilian states with regular rains.

Worldwide, the list of lands known as good for growing food and agricultural products such as cotton should become broader, and may come to include the dry, sandy grounds of Africa.

What is going to happen? The phenomenon that holds the promise of changing the geography of agricultural production worldwide should hit the market soon: genetically modified, drought-adapted seeds.

There already are specific seeds for dry regions being used around the world. They are made through conventional genetic improvement, which is the crossing of plants. However, the market is waiting for transgenic seeds, created using a technology through which one plant receives genetic material from another one. These should boost productivity in water stress regions.

The shortest deadline is that of United States-based multinational corporation Monsanto, which is now developing two strains of corn seeds using biotechnology and transgenics. One of the products is at a pre-commercial launch stage, which includes sales plans, seed production and augmented testing.

According to the scientific relations manager at Monsanto Brazil, Eugênio Ulian, the first generation of seeds is expected to be approved by the regulatory agencies of the United States in 2012.

Ulian explains that these seeds will be produced targeting specific regions. The first batch is turned to the western portion of the Great Plains of the United States. Another batch is at an early stage of development and has no set date for launch.

It will target the remaining corn-producing areas of the United States where irrigation is used. They will, however, require lower amounts of water.

How about Brazil? Will it take long for Monsanto’s transgenic, water stress-resistant seeds to arrive? Ulian has no answer, but believes that the products destined for the United States could be tested in the country.

“Unlike other herbicide-resistant products, which are effective 24/7, the effectiveness of drought-resistant products will depend on the region where you grow them, and on the water stress that the seeds are faced with,” explains Ulian.

The first batch of Monsanto’s corn seeds will target an increase of 8% to 10% in productivity compared with the hybrid, non-drought resistant variety of corn.

The latter is meant for crops with good growing conditions and regular rains, but these may become scarce, harming the productivity. “The adapted corn seeds will lose less productivity than conventional ones,” says Ulian.

The manager avoids speculating on the limits of the biotechnologically developed, water scarcity-adapted seeds. He claims, however, that Monsanto is part of a project named Water Efficient corn for Africa (Wema), which seeks solutions for growing corn in the drought-stricken region.

In the Brazilian Northeast, the specialist states that the areas where corn could be grown are already taken by other cultures. He asserts, however, that the research in drought-tolerant strains should come to include other products as well.

On the Brazilian market, some believe in the seeds, while others are skeptical regarding the extent to which they may expand the country’s agricultural boundaries.

“The water stress-resistant strains will open up a vast new frontier in regions that receive little rain, such as Africa and South America, in particular the Brazilian Northeast,” says the professor of economics at the Federal University of the State of Paraná and technician at the National Supply Company (Conab, in the Portuguese acronym), Eugênio Stefanelo. According to him, the technology should help solve water scarcity issues.

Within the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (Embrapa), which, like Monsanto, is engaged in the quest for farming technology in areas where rains are scarce, there is also a belief in the results of the news seeds.

“There are areas where you cannot grow certain plants today, but that will change in the future, the risk (of losses) is going to decrease,” says the head of the genetic engineering laboratory of the Embrapa’s National Center of Genetic Resources and Biotechnology (Cenargen), Francisco Aragão. “The agricultural-climatic charting is going to change.” This charting is what determines the risk of growing different cultures in different places.

According to Aragão, some new cultures can be grown, for instance, in the Sertão region (backlands) of the Northeast. “In Africa, there should be a big change, the distribution of rains there is not good, there are long droughts,” says the researcher, who is also a doctor in Molecular Biology. Farming in regions such as Iraq, Iran or Israel, which are located in the Middle East, should benefit as well, he believes.

The results, however, should not come overnight. Embrapa is currently working to devise drought-resistant seeds, using genetic engineering and transgenics, for soy, bean, cotton, sugarcane and corn.

According to Aragão, the seeds should not be on the market in less than ten years, though. Biosafety testing alone, he explains, which involves making sure that the product is safe for the environment, animals and humans alike, should take approximately five years.

Embrapa announced that it succeeded in breeding the first transgenic, drought-resistant sugarcane plants. It should take a few years, however, before they are commercially produced and launched on the market.

According to the institute, in the next few months the plants should be bred in vitro and by May 2012 they should be evaluated regarding their resistance to drought. After that, they will undergo practical testing. The aim is to increase the locations in which cane may be grown, and which are now limited to the Center-South and Northeast of Brazil.

“[Conventional] improvement also works, but genetic engineering aims for an impacting change, something that can be seen on only in large scale, but also from one plant to the other,” says Aragão.

Aside from taking production to places originally not suited for it, the technology aims to provide seeds that are better adapted to the post-global warming world. Monsanto, for instance, has made a public commitment of doubling the productivity of soy, corn and cotton by 2030 and offer seeds that will reduce the amount of water and inputs used by one third.

The agronomist at the Brazilian Seeds and Seedlings Association (Abrasem), Plínio Itamar de Souza, who specializes in soy, believes that the technology will be important, for instance, to regions where soy is grown with insecurity, as it should provide more stable crops in drought seasons.

In regions where dry spells are too long, however, he believes that the crops will not be viable. According to Souza, there is much skepticism regarding the benefits of these seeds on the market.

Anba

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