Brazilian scientists turning nation into an agro-power

By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, October 16, 2010; 9:51 PM

CRISTALINA, BRAZIL - Barely two generations ago, the gently rolling hills here in Brazil's heartland were a knot of short, brittle trees and acidic soil considered unfit for agriculture. But on a recent morning, a New Holland harvester cut through golden husks of wheat on Paulo Kramer's farm.

Wheat, of course, is a temperate crop that flourishes in places like Kansas and South Dakota. But here in Brazil's Cerrado, a wide savannah that covers nearly a quarter of the country, wheat varieties created especially for tropical climates and nutrient-poor soil bloom alongside corn, soybeans and cotton.

Once seen as a wasteland, the Cerrado is now the motor of an agro-industry so potent that Brazil threatens to surpass the United States as breadbasket to the world. The answer to how that transformation happened can be found at a government-run agricultural research center, called Embrapa, where scientists make Brazil's poor soils fertile while developing crop varieties that will thrive here, such as wheat.

"When we started to plant in the Cerrado, I could never have imagined we'd be planting wheat," said Kramer, 50, who came here from southern Brazil in the 1980s and has 1,700 acres of farmland. "Wheat was for cold climates."

As Brazil prepares to elect a successor to President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva on Oct. 31, the Latin American giant is widely considered an economic success story among emerging markets. Some analysts say its economy may become the fifth-largest by 2016, when the Olympic Games are staged in Rio de Janeiro, and Brazil's increasingly diverse industry produces automobiles, refrigerators, fighter planes and deep-sea oil platforms.

Brazil, however, is perhaps best known as a dominant power in the exportation of foodstuffs, from meat to poultry, orange juice to coffee. Other rising giants, most notably China, cannot get enough of Brazil's soybeans and beef, its two signature exports. And poorer countries struggling to produce food, such as Venezuela and several African countries, want to emulate its success.

That has made the Brasilia headquarters of Embrapa, which stands for the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corp., an essential stop for foreign agriculture ministers and other dignitaries curious about how Brazil made the Cerrado green. In turn, under a directive from Lula, Embrapa is sending its scientists as near as Venezuela and as far as Mozambique to help improve production.

"What's happened there is the equivalent of the Green Revolution," said Andrew Colin McClung, an American whose work in the Cerrado in the late-1950s helped set the stage for Embrapa's innovations years later. "It's hard not to overemphasize their importance."

In the years since American farming went into overdrive, setting an example to be replicated worldwide, McClung and two Brazilian scientists would determine that the Cerrado could be made green by adding lime, phosphorous and other nutrients.

In 1973, whipsawed by oil shocks and facing the challenges of feeding the country's burgeoning population, the military dictatorship then ruling Brazil founded Embrapa. A collection of laboratories went up in the Cerrado, in tiny Planaltina outside of Brasilia.

Embrapa administrators knew their endeavor would not be fulfilled overnight, so they started by sending 1,200 young scientists to the best American and European universities for their master's degrees and doctorates.

By the 1980s, with hundreds of American-trained Brazilian scientists at work at Embrapa, the Cerrado began its transformation and Brazil went from exporting coffee, cacao and sugar to developing dozens of major products for export. Lured by cheap land and government credit, thousands of farmers began migrating from southern Brazil into the Cerrado, which now accounts for two-thirds of Brazil's agricultural output.

"This is a country that only 40 years ago had problems feeding the population," said Francisco Souza, a Mississippi State-educated tropical seed expert and head of Embrapa's international wing. He recalled how meat was imported from Argentina, beans from Mexico, rice from the Philippines.

"How can you go, in 30 years, from importing all the food to becoming the first or second or, at least, the third-largest exporter?" he asked. "The main driving force has been the technology."

Among those who have made a career developing that technology is Thomaz A. Rein, a soil scientist educated at Cornell University who started at Embrapa in 1984. In a tour of Embrapa's test fields in Planaltina, he talked excitedly of a new phosphorus fertilizer for sugar cane and a nitrogen fertilization experiment with corn.

"We see here the big difference," Rein said, standing beside another test field, this one planted with wheat. "The wheat fertilized with sulfur are taller, and we will have good yield."

In the Planaltina labs, scientists have also developed dozens of varieties of soybeans, corn, cotton and other crops while finding methods to contain plagues. Bovine experts have been working on how to fatten up cattle and hogs faster and more efficiently while improving the quality of the meat. Such work can be found at 45 Embrapa labs nationwide, each of which is entrusted with improving the crops common to Brazil's far-flung regions, like the palm oil produced in the Amazon.

Improving Brazilian agriculture is vital, said Embrapa officials, because agribusiness accounts for a quarter of GDP and 40 percent of exports. But there is potential for much more, because only a fraction of the land Brazil could farm is being cultivated.

Pedro Antonio Arraes, who is president of Embrapa and received his doctorate in genetics and plant breeding at the University of Wisconsin, said Embrapa's role is to improve production per acre so Brazil uses its land efficiently. During an interview, he announced that he would hire another 400 researchers by year's end, part of a sustained buildup that saw the budget rise 29 percent last year.

"We are in research and development; we have to produce papers, but that's not our main objective," he said. "What's important is, you have to provide innovation. You have to provide competitiveness for agro-business."

On Kramer's farm here in Cristalina, the competitive advantage came through two new wheat varieties, dubbed BRS 254 and BRS 264. Kramer says the roots of these sturdy varieties dig deep into the soil. They have also proven resistant to disease, he said, and are so productive that he can plant and harvest faster than an American wheat farmer. "Embrapa advises producers on the varieties to plant," Kramer said. "They give us the right guidance in planting so we do not make mistakes."

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