At 45, Brazil’s agricultural research company reaches a crossroads

embrapa agricultural research brazil
Brazil’s Agricultural Research Corporation has turned 45

Few companies have been as important to Brazil’s agribusiness than Embrapa, the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation. Created in 1972, during some of the hardest years of the military dictatorship, the company has been instrumental in transforming Brazil from a food importer into one of the world’s leading agricultural powers.

Developing the use of microorganisms to capture nitrogen to nourish plants – thus avoiding an excessive use of fertilizers – is just one such example of the company’s noteworthy accomplishments. With the help of Embrapa, Brazil became one of the world’s top beef producers, the country lowered prices for basic foods, and transformed Brazilian agribusiness into one of the world’s most effective and sustainable.

Embrapa’s multiple advances turned the cerrado, a savanna-like biome with notoriously poor soils, into Brazil’s biggest grain-producing region. Since the company was created, Brazil’s grain production has increased by 556 percent – while planted surfaces advanced only by 163 percent. Availability of beef and pork is now four times higher, and availability of poultry is 22 times higher. [restricted]

brazil agricultural research grain production

Budgetary difficulties

But Embrapa’s glorious past is by no means a guarantee of a bright future. The state-owned company has seen its funding slashed. In 2017, budget cuts reached 30 percent, reducing the company’s resources from USD 860 million to USD 560 million.

The research company is in a quagmire. It spends a lot on personnel, around 85 percent of its entire budget. On the flip side, quality research calls for competent researchers, which don’t come cheap. But due to Brazil’s federal spending cap approved by the Michel Temer administration, there’s no way the company will get more money soon. The result has been a drastic reduction in investments, which will amount to less than 1 percent of the total 2018 budget.

embrapa budget

“We have to look for alternatives in an intelligent way. Partnerships with the private sector could be an alternative,” says Cleber Soares, Embrapa’s Executive Director of Innovation and Technology. The company is waiting for congressional approval to create a subsidiary called EmbrapaTEC, which would be able to market Embrapa’s intellectual property and sign partnerships with private actors without many of the restrictions imposed on public companies.

That solution is met, however, with some resistance. “Embrapa has the word ‘research’ in its name, and not ‘market.’ In most cases, its research role ends precisely when it delivers a finished product to those responsible for multiplying it and putting it on the market,” says Cristina Schetino Bastos, an agronomy professor at the University of Brasilia (UnB).

Agricultural research: food security and sovereignty

Not being able to rely on public funding creates several problems for Embrapa. The company is a strategic asset to Brazil, as Cleber Soares highlights. “No country can depend on others to ensure its food sovereignty. For this reason, Embrapa should remain a state-owned company, not only to develop technology and implement food production, but also to support food sovereignty.

“For this reason, Embrapa holds and maintains one of the main hemoplasma banks for agricultural crops, livestock, which we use to develop new varieties, new lineages of products that go to the table of the Brazilian consumer”, the executive says.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has recognized Brazil as a crucial actor to guarantee worldwide food security in the future. And a lot of this has to do with Embrapa.

Ms. Bastos remarks that Embrapa’s exhaustive list of achievements allows the “occupation of new areas that were not available, through the selection of genotypes adapted to such places.” Besides being able to cultivate anything in the cerrado, another statement of the company’s importance is the planting of fruits in the semi-arid Northeast, or the democratization of the access to poultry nationwide.

Moreover, the company’s actions, according to Ms. Bastos, avoided “the extinction of species that could not be planted because of pests.”

To fulfill this role of insurer of food security, Embrapa must remain public, says Ms. Bastos. Private corporations, after all, prefer focusing on more profitable products, like soybeans and corn – despite the biodiversity risks represented by monoculture.

State-owned companies are often bashed for their underperformance. That’s hardly Embrapa’s case. Still, the company’s potential has been hampered as the government doesn’t prioritize its activities.[/restricted]

By Diogo Rodriguez

Rodriguez is a social scientist and journalist based in São Paulo.