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October 14, 2015

Embrapa Falling Behind in Research Funding

In a recent interview with the magazine Exame, the president of Embrapa, Mauricio Lopes, lamented about the low level of funding for his agriculture research organization. According to Lopes, Brazil invests 1.9% of its agricultural gross domestic product in research in the agricultural sector, which is about half the amount invested in U.S. agriculture research.

Embrapa receives approximately 60% of all the agricultural research investment in Brazil and Lopes feels that the funding needs to double just to stay competitive. Brazil contributes 5% of the world's investment in agricultural research compared to 7% in India, 13% in the U.S., and 20% in China.

For 42 years, the research conducted by Embrapa has been a central component in Brazil's expanding agricultural sector. They have been essential in developing new crop varieties adapted to the soils and climate of the expanding agricultural frontier and for the dissemination of technologies needed to increase productivity.

Over the last four decades, Embrapa's mission has changed. Early in its history, Embrapa conducted fundamental research on improving agricultural production in Brazil. At one time in the mid-1990's, Embrapa was responsible for 70% of the investments in developing new soybean varieties adapted to Brazil's growing conditions. But with the entrance of multinational seed companies into the Brazilian market, Embrapa's share of the investments in varietal development has fallen to roughly 10%.

Lopes feels they will gain some market share in the seed business with their release of the first GMO soybean variety developed entirely within the Southern Hemisphere. In 2016 they will release a GMO dry bean variety resistant to the mosaic virus which causes great loses for Brazilian farmers. Lopes hopes to increase their market share of the Brazilian seed business to 15% within five years.

Part of Embrapa's new mission is to improve the productivity on existing land that is considered degraded due to low fertility or high rates of soil erosion. In doing so, it will reduce the pressure to clear new land for additional agricultural production.

There are an estimated 50 million hectares of degraded pastures in Brazil (123 million acres) and Embrapa researchers have developed a method to greatly improve the carrying capacity of those pastures thus freeing up some of the degraded pastures for additional row crop production. Some of these pastures have a carrying capacity of one cow per hectare, but Embrapa has shown that it could be increased to four cows per hectare with improved fertility, improved grass species, and improved management practices.

With an improved carrying capacity, a rancher could produce more cattle on a smaller area thus being able to convert some of the pasture to soybean or corn production. That is exactly what many ranchers have been doing in central Brazil in recent years. This is also what environmental groups have been pushing for in order to reduce the rate of deforestation - produce more crops on existing areas.

Embrapa has done a superb job on improving soybean production, which is Brazil's largest crop. Now they are shifting some of their focus to crops such as corn, wheat, dry beans, rice, and sugarcane, which still harelatively low levels of productivity.