Dry beans are grown in nearly every state in Brazil according to the U.S. Agricultural Attaché in Brazil, and the country is the number one producer in the world at 3.45 million metric ton in 2010/11. Family farmers produce 70 percent of the total production. Dry beans are grown in three distinct seasons: dry, wet and winter. The dry season crop is planted mainly in the southern region of the country and harvested in November through February. The wet season crop is grown throughout the country and harvested in March through June. The winter crop is grown in the tropical north under irrigation with harvest in May through September. The golden mosaic virus can cause production losses of 85-100 percent.
Per capita consumption of dry beans in Brazil has declined to roughly 33 pounds per person compared to 57 pounds in 1970 due to higher incomes, a shift in population from rural to urban areas and lower relative prices for competing foods like pasta. Consumers are increasingly demanding higher quality beans. With high protein, beans are usually combined with rice to create a low cost, high nutrition meal as an alternative to meat consumption for lower income families.
Analysis by the International Food Policy Research Institute found that dry bean yields per acre had declined in the 1970s and 1980s and recovered in the 1990s. In recent years, yields have averaged about 780 pounds per acre, above yields of ten years ago, but in recent decades yields have grown more slowly than yields for soybeans and rice. Brazilian imports in recent years have been 100,000-200,000 metric tons annually, about 3-5 percent of consumption. Argentina usually account for half of imports. Dry bean exports by Brazil have been insignificant, but could increase with larger production and high quality.
This biotech event is the first one fully developed in Brazil after ten years of effort by Embrapa, the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation, a public research institution linked to the federal government. Its mission is to provide solutions for sustainable development through technology generation and transfer. Embrapa is well known for developing high yielding soybean varieties for southern Brazil and for the tropical cerrado region. Prior to the announcement of the biotech dry beans, Brazil had 31 approved biotech varieties, 17 for corn, 9 for cotton and 5 for soybeans. All of these were developed by or in cooperation with non-Brazilian companies, including Monsanto, Pioneer, Syngenta, Dow, DuPont, Bayer and BASF.
Brazil also has developed biotech events for sugarcane that could be applied to its 20 million acres of sugarcane, the worlds largest. It grows almost seven million acres of rice that could benefit from biotech events being developed in Asia were 90 percent of rice production and consumption occurs. In addition to Vitamin A fortified rice, the Philippine Rice Research Institute is developing resistance to viruses and bacterial blight diseases. China has already approved a Bt rice event.
With biotech dry beans Brazil has entered the spotlight for biotech crops beyond just approving technology developed in other countries. The history of research efforts by Embrapa has been recognized around the world, particularly in other developing countries. Brazil’s “sphere of influence” has expanded for the science of biotechnology, but also for the regulation of biotechnology. By approving a food crop that is produced by small-sized farms and eaten by millions of low income consumers, they have made a major step in opening up the promise of biotech crops for more farmers and consumers.
Brazilian biotech dry beans join biotech white corn in South Africa as biotech diet staples available to a wide market. They also join Chinese approval of biotech papaya resistant to ring spot virus; 99 percent of about 11,000 acres of papaya in Guangdong province in 2010 were biotech according to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications.
Brazil has had a methodical approach to biotech crops after ignoring for several years farmer-saved biotech soybean seed coming from Argentina. Presidential decrees in 2003 and 2004 approved the planting of farmer-saved seed for the 2003/04 and 2004/05 soybean marketing years. Two main governing bodies regulate agricultural crop biotechnology under a law passed in March of 2005 and amended in 2006. The National Biosafety Council is under the Office of the President and responsible for the formulation and implementation of the national biosafety policy. The National Technical Commission of Biosafety under the Ministry of Science and Technology debates and decides all technical related issues.
For many countries, the regulatory structure has been much more of an issue than the science of the biotechnology. Developing countries have not had the capacity to work through developing a regulatory system. Brazil did not have a choice but to develop regulations because the technology had already entered the country. Brazil has overcome those challenges and other developing countries can draw on that experience to fashion policies that could work for them.
Developing countries have many crops that low-income families produce and consume that do not attract funding from commercial companies under the current costly regulatory systems. Brazil has made a serious contribution to closing that gap. This could provide a basis for harmonizing regulations across countries that would facilitate trade in biotech crops. It could also lower the cost of approving biotech crops by allowing developing countries to share research data and reduce the time required from developing the crop to final commercialization. Developing countries could leap-frog through regulatory steps rather than waste time and money repeating test done by others with harmonized regulatory systems.
Ross Korves is the Economic Policy Analyst for Truth About Trade & Technology.