GM bean benefits consumers and small farmers in Brazil

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In a victory for small farmers and public sector research, Brazilian grocery stores are now selling a genetically modified (GM) bean resistant to a destructive plant disease.

The bean developed by the government funded Embrapa can successfully resist the bean golden mosaic virus (BGMV), which causes losses estimated at 300,000 tonnes per year, enough to feed 15 million people.

Bean golden mosaic virus. Credit: IPM Images

International news agencies reported in March 2019, that common beans – the epitome of Brazilian cuisine and a primary source of protein for millions of people – had seen a huge price hike that pushed the staple food into the realm of an article by luxury. The rise was due to low production in a country where the average Brazilian consumes around 15 kilograms (33 pounds) of beans per year.

In an effort to prevent these types of food crises, which negatively affect the country’s poorest consumers, public sector institutes have been working on biotech solutions. Despite a path strewn with pitfalls, Emprapa has succeeded in developing GM beans that are resistant to BGMV.

About 70 percent of Brazil’s beans are produced by small-scale farmers, who have often lost 40 to 100 percent of their harvest to the virus. In an effort to control the disease-spreading whitefly, farmers often applied insecticides 15 to 20 times during the growing season.

Francisco Aragao, principal scientist on the project and principal investigator at Embrapa, said farmers who grow GM beans are expected to see their profitability increase by 28 to 78 percent while reducing pesticide applications to just three per season. If even 30 percent of Brazilian farmers adopted the technology, they could realize increased profits of $ 200 million per year, he said.

After completing a 20-year development and regulatory journey and being approved for commercial cultivation, the GM bean is now available in supermarkets.

Brazil is the second largest producer of biotech crops worldwide with 104 approved events and 53 million hectares planted with GM crops, mainly soybeans, corn and cotton. The new biotech bean is good news for the field of public research, as it shows the value of investing in regional varieties that provide a solution to regional problems, opening the door to more varieties for improvement.

Public sector research could benefit from further impetus by taking advantage of the Brazilian regulatory framework which considers most genetically modified crops as conventional products and thus free from the lengthy regulatory process required for genetically modified crops.

Aragao previously indicated that he and his team continue to work on improvements for this Brazilian bean and are already incorporating new gene-editing technologies to give it greater drought tolerance, among other phenotypic characteristics. They are also incorporating new crops into their efforts, such as GM lettuce and castor seeds.

Expanded public sector research could also be a boon to Brazil’s food production system and 4.4 million family farms, which have been largely ignored by large companies focusing on major staple crops.

Luis Ventura is a biologist specializing in biotechnology, biosafety and science communication, born and raised in a small town near Mexico City. He is a member of the International Plant Genetic Resources Platform at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences. Follow him on twitter @luisventura

A version of this article originally appeared on the site Cornell Alliance for Science and has been reposted here with permission. The Cornell Alliance for Science can be found on Twitter @ScienceAlly



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