Interview: Dr. Pedro Arraes Pereira, President of Embrapa
IFPRI Forum talks with Dr. Pedro Arraes Pereira about the future of agriculture, biotechnology, and climate change in developing countries.
FORUM: Embrapa is a highly respected institution. What have been some of the factors that have made it so successful? How has Embrapa’s research benefitted small farmers?
Arraes: Embrapa was created in 1973 to meet the major challenges of promoting, stimulating, coordinating, and executing agricultural research activities across the whole of the national territory with the aim of producing knowledge and technology to be put at the service of the nation’s producers. It started as a department in the Ministry of Agriculture, and then became a public corporation with the agility necessary to lead a real revolution in the incipient Brazilian agricultural research system. In fact, one of the primary factors that allowed it to head up this scientific and technological revolution was brought about to a large extent by the generation of knowledge and activities arising from the National Agricultural Research System (Sistema Nacional de Pesquisa Agrícola, SNPA), initially coordinated by Embrapa.
This arrangement, which involved State Agricultural Research Organizations (Organizações Estaduais de Pesquisa Agropecuária, Oepas), universities, and other similar institutions, made possible the incorporation of innovations that guaranteed that giant steps forward could be taken in matters of agricultural quality and productivity, and the supply of food and producer goods to the growing urban population and the industrial sector, which was a significant factor in moving Brazilian agriculture forward into an outstanding position in the Brazilian economic and social development process.
FORUM: What do you see as being a few of the primary challenges faced by agriculture in developing countries and in Brazil?
Arraes: The primary challenges faced by agriculture in developing countries are related to continual growth and sustainability in agriculture. The following are the most relevant of those challenges:
- Challenges of knowledge: During the past few decades, we’ve been seeing an unprecedented advancement in the physical, chemical, and biological sciences and in their interrelationships, with profound impact on their technological applications, such as in robotics and computer science, breaking with the established paradigms. These advances were rearranged into new areas of scientific inquiry, such as genomics, nanotechnology, information technology, and knowledge management, increasing the human capacity to research, learn, oversee, predict, and grasp a holistic vision of the world.
- Challenges of production: The cultivation of one and the same area of land year after year changes the physical properties of the soil, its fertility, and the microorganisms that inhabit it. This requires that a major effort must be continually made to create new cultivars that are suited to these changes, just to maintain the present agricultural efficiency levels. As the years and decades pass, small environmental changes build up, giving rise to large-scale impacts on nature. This is what we are seeing with the increased emissions of carbon and other greenhouse gases, and the climate change that is threatening to come about. So this is the major challenge: in order to continue feeding a growing world population, the technology needs to take into consideration the effects of climate change such as epidemics and illness; irrigation and living with drought; the use, production, and preservation of water; food security; and biosecurity.
- Challenges of environmental sustainability and preservation: One of the biggest challenges of Brazilian agriculture is the Amazon region. Amazonia today is a region with its own productive structure and dynamic, which requires not just another occupation policy, but a development consolidation policy, as called for by all players in the region. In Amazonia, biodiversity offers the greatest possibilities for generating wealth without destroying nature, which makes possible the formulation of regional-scale policies and the inclusion of a considerable portion of the population inhabiting the far reaches of the forest and its traditional communities. The challenge of making an economical use of its natural patrimony makes Amazonia a nation-wide issue, and science, technology, and innovation should contribute to coming up with a solution to the challenges it contains. It is indispensable that the traditional problems be overcome by increased investment in agricultural research and human resources qualification.
Embrapa’s research centers in the region should offer sustainable technological solutions to this economical use of the region. The use of degraded areas on a competitive basis, for example, involves the effective participation by the network of the Corporation’s centers in offering technological solutions. Greater production in already human-altered areas would put a brake on expansion via deforestation into new farming areas. Initial studies indicate that the occupation of Amazonia cannot be carried out correctly without a proper understanding of the subtleties of the dynamic interactions between soil, water, plants, insects, microorganisms and animals, both on solid earth and flooded forest. This requires zoning of an ecological/economic (ZEE), pedoclimactic, and climate-risk nature of all its innumerable and distinct “territories,” defined in accord with the history of the human occupation and exploitation of its natural resources. Only with this wealth of information will it be possible to carry out the proper arrangement, management, and monitoring of these territories, as well as the handling, valuation, and valorization of its natural resources, and the definition of sustainable agricultural and agroforestry production systems for the region.
- Challenges of public policy management: Today’s boom in agriculture is based on technological developments that have arisen during the past 40 years and that have been gradually appropriated by family and commercial-based rural enterprises over the course of those years. To put it another way, this means that in the agriculture business, a given set of technological solutions takes time to be absorbed by enough of a significant number of enterprises to realize a sizable portion of wealth creation, well-being, and socioeconomic growth potential, which also presupposes an environmental equilibrium.
Faced with this public policy management context, the full harmonization of technologies with the conservation of the environment may well be the great challenge of this century.
FORUM: Genetically modified organisms (GMO) are considered controversial in many countries. Brazilian farmers have widely adopted GMO technology in soy and corn farming. What role has Embrapa played in bringing about the acceptance of biotechnology in Brazil?
Arraes: Brazil itself, and mainly Embrapa, have played an important role in the creation of legislation to provide the legal means for the safe use of GMO technology by Brazilian farmers. It is important to point out that any technology, GMO or otherwise, whose application increases yield, will be used. Aside from its normal line of research, Embrapa is using modular techniques. It also uses public–private partnerships for the development of cultivars with the most advanced innovations available on the market, thus contributing to making Brazilian agriculture continue to be ever more competitive.
Finally, Embrapa also maintains conventional improvement programs, making available to producers the conventional materials for all the principal cropping work important in large-scale as well as household agriculture.
FORUM: How has Embrapa helped Brazil to adapt itself to and mitigate the impact of climate changes?
Arraes: Research conducted at Embrapa units, at state research corporations, and at Brazilian universities has sought to find solutions to help mitigate the impact of climate change on Brazilian agriculture. Various known agricultural practices are capable of diminishing carbon emissions in the sector, and moreover, increasing carbon sequestration, such as integration between animal husbandry and farming, the use of agroforestry systems and the incentives for direct planting and biological nitrogen fixation. The idea behind them is to improve the handling of cultures and pastures. Mixed cropping, for example, avoids the need to leave the earth fallow for certain periods, which diminishes the risk of erosion and increases the quantity of carbon in the soil. Some alternatives that Embrapa has studied are: pasture-crop integration, forestry systems (forest management as a way of mitigating climate change), direct planting, more efficient animal husbandry, arborization of coffee trees, dealing with drought (taking advantage of knowledge of more drought-tolerant plants and giving incentives for planting a broader variety of crops), genetic improvements and transgenics. Aside from this, simulated agroclimactic zoning studies have been used to map the primary crops for a temperature increase of up to 5° C during the next 50 years.
FORUM: What can other nations learn from Embrapa’s experience so that they can reinforce their agriculture systems?
Arraes: We offer the following five recommendations:
- Prioritize the permanent qualification of researchers and support personnel.
- Focus on research, prioritizing the weakest of the various links in the production chains.
- Participate in public policymaking in the area of agriculture.
- Form national and international research networks.
- Interact profoundly with the production sector in identifying research demands.