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Systemic Challenges to Agbiotech: Lessons From Londrina, Brazil

This post was a finalist in Agrilinks' Young Scholars Blog Contest. Read more about the contest and the other finalists here. A huge thank you to all the young scholars who submitted blogs for this contest.

When it comes to agricultural biotechnology for international development, we’re at a unique time. On one hand, research teams are developing a new generation of poverty-reducing crops ranging from wilt-resistant, vitamin A-fortified bananas in Uganda, to drought-resistant maize in Southern Africa to insect-resistant eggplant in Bangladesh. On the other hand, farmers around the world have cultivated genetically engineered (GE) crops since 1994, giving us two decades of successes and challenges from which to learn.

I have spent the past eight months in Londrina, Brazil researching one of the most significant of these challenges: herbicide-tolerant weeds in soybean cropping systems. GE glyphosate-resistant crops make weed control easy – farmers apply glyphosate (an herbicide also known by its trade name Roundup) to their fields, killing the weeds but not the crop. If producers do not properly rotate their weed control practices, however, weeds quickly evolve resistance through natural selection.

GE cropping systems are particularly prone to herbicide-tolerant weeds because the ease of glyphosate application discourages pesticide rotation. 90 percent of infested areas and economic losses due to herbicide-tolerant weeds are a result of glyphosate-tolerant weeds in GE cropping systems. In Brazil, there are eight species of glyphosate-tolerant weeds, which farmers combat by increasing herbicide dosage and the number of applications – a threat to the health of waterways, native flora and pollinators, not to mention a great economic expense.

Researchers emphasize that the best solution to herbicide-tolerant weeds is to rotate pest control practices to prevent the evolution of resistance. Yet many farmers fail to fully implement these preventative practices, suggesting that there are educational, systemic and/or economic barriers that prevent the responsible use of GE glyphosate-resistant crops. Through surveys and interviews with farmers and technical assistants, my research aims to identify these barriers and eventually facilitate understanding between the researchers who develop GE crops and the farmers who plant them.

Some of my findings are primarily relevant to GE glyphosate-resistant soy production systems in Londrina, Brazil. But some of the barriers to sustainable weed management are part of larger systemic challenges to GE crops and offer lessons for practitioners implementing biotechnology projects around the world.

Distant value chains
Like any high-tech agricultural solution, commercializing a transgenic crop requires the technical contributions of hundreds of individuals, from geneticists to breeders to seed vendors. This extensive innovation chain means that 1) technology developers are often removed from end-users and 2) it’s difficult to assign responsibility for any problems that arise from the technology.

In the case of GE glyphosate-resistant crops, trait researchers depend on farmers to implement the technology correctly. In Londrina, many farmers say they fail to do so because they believe researchers will develop new technologies to address any problem that arises. In both cases, one actor fails to understand the limitations of the other to address or prevent a problem. Practitioners should promote communication, engagement and accountability across technology value chains to ensure that actors take responsibility for their roles in addressing unforeseen consequences that arise from the technology and that they understand the limitations of other stakeholders’ abilities to do the same.  

Extension isn’t a silver bullet
Technical assistance is essential for disseminating new technologies, but education alone doesn’t necessarily incline farmers to implement best practices. In Londrina, farmers have extensive access to technical assistance and generally understand the best practices for preventing the evolution of resistant weeds. The primary reason they fail to fully implement them is not because of lack of information but because these practices can be expensive or inconvenient. While technical assistance is important, it is not a silver bullet. Practitioners should ensure that farmers have access to information about best practices and the financial and temporal resources to implement them.

Economics determine farmer actions
Biotechnology can be a powerful tool to make farming easier and more productive. And for that very reason, it is naïve to expect that all producers will practice thorough herbicide rotation or implement Bt refuges, forsaking short-term profits and convenience in the name of the abstract, long-term benefit of preventing resistance. Technology developers should appreciate the social context into which they release new innovations and attempt to anticipate economic constraints that may prevent farmers from implementing best practices. With greater understanding across technology innovation chains, promising new technologies will serve us today and for years to come.

Comments

Congratulations, Tara! Synthetic, precise, enlightening and well written!