Science - March 11, 2004

Brazilians open the door to Wageningen researchers

The Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation Embrapa, responsible for the ‘soybean miracle’ plans to open its doors to Wageningen UR. In the past there has been little cooperation between the DLO of Brazil and its Dutch counterpart, but the president of Embrapa, Clayton Campanhola, has plans, which he revealed on a visit to Wageningen this week. It should mean big opportunities for researchers and students who want to work with Brazilian agricultural researchers.

It is strange that Wageningen researchers have not already built up an intensive collaboration with Embrapa. The huge organisation employs over 86,000 people in 37 institutes, and falls under the Brazilian Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Food. It carries out wide-ranging agricultural research throughout the largest country in South America. Director of Embrapa, Clayton Campanhola, has to think hard though to come up with an example of a joint research project with Wageningen UR. “I’m not sure,” he says, shuffling through his papers. “Oh yes, there’s one project on tailor-made techniques for small growers. But cooperation still has to get off the ground. That’s why I’m in Wageningen.” Embrapa is particularly interested in Wageningen’s biotechnology expertise, in genetic techniques, food technology and food quality. Campanhola envisages not only collaboration between researchers, but also that MSc students will be able to do internships at Embrapa.

Why is Embrapa, and Brazil, an interesting working environment for agricultural scientists? Campanhola: “Look at our country, with its rich and incredibly diverse environment, from the temperate areas in the south, through the savannah in the centre to the semi-arid area in the north-east. There is a very wide variety of crops growing in these climatically different regions. It’s a paradise for the agricultural scientist.” Of the 37 research institutes, several specialise in specific products such as sorghum, maize, cassava, cattle and poultry; others are regionally oriented. “For example, we have six institutes devoted to the Amazon area, researching agroforestry and the way in which the rainforest can be used sustainably without harming the biodiversity there.”

Campanhola stresses that land-use problems in Brazil are on a totally different scale to those of the Netherlands. One of the biggest challenges is how to combine production of soybean with protecting the rainforest and other pristine ecosystems. Campanhola is proud of his organisation’s success with soybean: “Embrapa is only thirty years of age, and in this time we have tripled the soybean yields in Brazil. This has been vital to the economy, as soybean is an export product that commands a good price.

Embrapa succeeded in ‘tropicalising’ the crop, making it suitable for our country, as it originally grows in colder regions of the world.” But there have been outcries from environmental organisations and local communities in the Amazon rainforest that the soybean miracle has been at the cost of the fragile rainforest. Campanhola is at pains to stress that this is not so, and that it is not Embrapa’s intent to destroy the rainforest. “We only produce in agricultural areas. We do not cut down rainforest. Soybean only replaces other crops or other agricultural activities.”

Whatever the case, the need for increased agricultural production, genetic improvement of crops and the sensitive relationship with the exceptionally rich natural environment in Brazil make it a very interesting area to work in. Campanhola also stressed that MSc students wanting to stay longer should bear in mind that over sixty percent of the employees of Embrapa have a PhD degree. “I do not think this is the case at Wageningen UR.” At present there are four Brazilian PhD students doing research in plant physiology and molecular virology, and more in other departments in Wageningen.

Hugo Bouter

Clayton Campanhola (left), director of the Brazilian agricultural research organisation Embrapa, lunches with Brazilian PhD students during his visit to Wageningen UR last Monday.