Public sector research spearheading LATAM’s foray into plant biotech

Embrapa, a Brazilian government-funded company, is challenging the private sector to bring biotech innovations to Latin America.

It is significant that a public research institution is leading Brazil’s foray into genetically modified crops. It ensures that the research carried out by Embrapa resonates with the needs of Brazilian consumers and farmers and challenges the popular narrative that big business controls biotechnology in the Latin American region.

The company has already achieved a number of successes. In early 2020, Embrapa announced that it had launched a genetically modified (GM) Brazilian bean resistant to a plant-destroying disease. More recently, Embrapa scientists used CRISPR-CAS/9 to develop the first genetically modified sugarcane varieties with valuable properties for biofuel production.

Francisco Aragao, senior researcher at the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (EMBRAPA) and co-creator of the GM bean, said these new varieties are just the start. Embrapa is making a concerted effort to directly compete with large companies already operating in Brazil, a country that is a world leader in the production of GM crops, according to ISAAA.

Embrapa currently has several projects involving genetic engineering underway in several research centers. They include folic acid biofortified lettuce, tomato leaf miner resistant tomatoes (Tuta absoluta), beans resistant to bean golden mosaic virus (BGMV) and castor bean in which a gene encoding ricin has been silenced.

All of these ongoing projects are almost ready to leave the lab and face the Brazilian regulatory process, which is required before they are available to farmers and consumers. Imidazoline-tolerant soy has already been approved for marketing.

Embrapa’s new cane – the world’s first genetically modified cane – supports biofuel production by providing better cell wall digestibility and more sucrose in plant tissue than other varieties. These varieties “respond to one of the biggest challenges in the sector: increasing the access of enzymes to the sugars imprisoned in the cells, which facilitates the production of ethanol (first and second generation) and the extraction of other bioproducts”, according to the Embrapa website.

The development of new sugarcane cultivars using CRISPR is revolutionary, according to Bruno Laviola, deputy director of research and development at Embrapa Agro-energy. “These cultivars are just the beginning, and they pave the way for the development and delivery of other cultivars for the production sector with traits that will directly impact sugarcane productivity and reduce production costs.

The development of new cultivars using CRISPR is beneficial in terms of technical precision and lower production costs, compared to conventional genetically modified organisms. Additionally, these new varieties can avoid the complications and huge costs associated with the regulatory framework used to review transgenic (GMO) plants. The Brazilian National Technical Commission on Biosafety considered genetically modified sugar cane as non-transgenic since it was developed by genome editing without DNA. For this reason, it will be easier for it to be approved for environmental release since crops that are not transgenic can be regulated as a conventional crop, according to Brazilian regulations.

For this reason, Aragao believes that gene editing will soon become much more common in Brazilian agriculture. “The regulatory system for this technology is much simpler compared to GM events,” he said. “Basically, we have to prove that no transgene is present in the event to be marketed.

By having public research centers like Embrapa engaged in the market, negative public perception towards GM crops can change and facilitate the adoption of new crops in the region. Moreover, as previously reported, the development model used by Embrapa will be an example for other countries in Latin America, Africa and Asia.

Embrapa is a government-funded company under Brazil’s agriculture ministry, Aragao said. Since its founding in 1973, it has focused on providing solutions to Brazil’s challenges in increasing food, fiber and fuel production. In addition to crop development, Embrapa has also helped quadruple Brazil’s beef and pork supply and increase chicken production 22-fold.

Image: A transgenic (GMO) soybean seed in an Embrapa research center in Parana, Brazil. Photo: Shutterstock/Alf Ribeiro


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