A view from the Brazilian agricultural frontier. John Lucas reports.

John Lucas

I’ve just got back from a five month stay in Brazil as a UK scientist working as part of the Embrapa Labex programme. Labex entails two main activities:  a research project in collaboration with colleagues in the host organisation, and networking with potential research partners to identify joint research opportunities of strategic importance to both countries.

So, contrary to suggestions that I spent most of my time playing beach volleyball, cavorting with revellers at the Rio Carnaval, or communing with indigenous tribes in remote reaches of the Amazon, I was in fact either in a lab coat at Embrapa Biotechnology and Genetic Resources (Cenargen) in Brasilia, or touring other Embrapa centres, research institutes, or universities across Brazil.

If one includes an earlier pre-visit, I have in the past nine months been to 13 of the 47 Embrapa centres, four universities, and several state-funded institutes (see my previous blog post for more). It was a demanding but constantly fascinating experience, and one that I hope exemplifies the increasingly close links between UK and Brazilian scientists in research in agriculture, biotechnology and the related life sciences.

New frontiers in food security

Brazil is now seen as a country at the frontline of the global quest for food security, renewable energy, and solutions for climate change and other environmental challenges. This is not surprising given their vast reserves of land and other natural resources, and experience in improving the productivity of tropical agriculture. For these challenges to be met the game needs to be raised everywhere, but especially in the tropics.

And Brazil has another priceless resource – a new generation of young, well-trained scientists, many of whom see a career in agricultural research as a good option. The Brazilian government has rightly recognised that investment in science and technology is a key driver of economic growth, and is putting in place schemes to support education and training in STEM subjects. The recently launched Science without Borders programme is now placing large numbers of students in universities and partner organisations abroad; 10,000 of them in the UK alone.

One advantage of spending a significant period of time in a different institution abroad is that people stop treating you as a guest and start to engage you as a colleague. One begins to discover the real issues concerning individuals and also the organisation itself.  Embrapa has a high  profile in government and an enviable reputation based on its demonstrable contribution to the booming Brazilian agricultural economy.

The introduction of superior genotypes of crops and livestock, better soil management, no till rotations, improved inoculants for biological nitrogen fixation, and the integration of crop, forest and animal production systems are all examples where Embrapa science has had significant impact. Any UK research organisation would, I am sure, give their right arm to be able to showcase a comparable portfolio of practical achievement.

Food for the future

But like all organisations, Embrapa is evolving, and adapting to new pressures, both academic and commercial. How can one ensure that an increasingly large and diverse organisation still shares a common mission? How does one achieve the right mix of scientific innovation and practical delivery to the industry? Many of the new generation of Brazilian scientists are trained in elite universities where impact is measured in terms of journal citations and other metrics not directly related to practical application. Back home they now face the same pressures as elsewhere to win competitive funds to support their research and progress their careers. Predominantly academic criteria are used to assess their performance. Unsurprisingly, the status of both individuals and institutions is increasingly judged by the same yardstick.

Does this trend matter? Isn’t this simply a healthy sign that Brazilian science is now joining the world premier league? Perhaps. But for organisations like Embrapa there is an obvious tension.

One of the centre directors that I met was candid in his view that research programmes now risked becoming detached from the core business of farming and land management. It is a dilemma that will be familiar to agricultural scientists everywhere. The Royal Society 2009 report Reaping the Benefits itself concluded that agricultural extension services should be a key component of any strategy to ensure that science is appropriately developed and targeted. There is a perceived shortage of scientists with these skills, and maybe a lack of incentives to develop them.

Intelligent innovation

For me the two sides of the debate were neatly exemplified by research projects in progress on my doorstep in Brasilia. In one, at Cenargen, fundamental studies on plant transformation have recently lead to the development of virus-resistant beans that are now registered for commercial use. They will be of particular value to small family farmers.

And the other, just up the road at Embrapa Cerrados, they have shown that you can produce high quality coffee under savannah conditions simply by careful timing of irrigation. This not only helps the trees survive the dry season, but synchronises flowering so that berries mature at the same time. Prior to this demonstration, no one really believed you could produce good coffee on the Cerrado.

So you need both high-tech and low-tech solutions to different agricultural problems.  Meeting the challenge of food and energy security will require geneticists, biotechnologists and soil scientists to team up with agronomists,ecologists and engineers to boost sustainable production. Organisations like Embrapa embody this idea, and it is vital to stay connected.

I am grateful for being given the opportunity to experience this from the inside.  My UK Inverse Labex placement was sponsored by BBSRC and Rothamsted Research. I also thank the many Embrapa colleagues, too numerous to list, who helped me during my stay.

About John Lucas

Professor John Lucas is Head of the Department of Plant Pathology and Microbiology at Rothamsted Research. He works on plant pathogenic fungi and infection processes on host plants. He is also interested in mechanisms of pathogen variation and evolution in response to changes in host populations and use of fungicides. He is currently working in Brazil as part of the Embrapa Labex programme with the UK, supported by BBSRC and Rothamsted.

You may also be interested in: