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Outside Rio, agricultural scientists work to improve production – and protect the landscape

RIO DE JANEIRO – The world has focused plenty of energy on the Amazon in recent decades, and legitimately so given the sheer scale of the physical transformation under way there. Less attention has been paid to the “cerrado”,  but Brazil’s ongoing agricultural expansion could have equally dire impacts on biodiversity in this tropical savannah, which picks up where the dense rainforest tapers off (see map at right).

Humberto Bizzo, a chemist with the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (Embrapa), is one of many scientists and environmentalists who are now turning their attention to the cerrado, partly out of a fear that the recent success in slowing deforestation the Amazon is merely displacing pressure for freshly cleared land into the surrounding landscape. Bizzo conducted his first field expedition in April to survey plants that produce essential oils that could be turned into valuable products in the cosmetics and beauty industry, potentially giving landowners another reason to protect the savannah.

“Biodiversity is actually higher in the cerrado than it is in the Amazon,” Bizzo says, but companies like the Brazilian Natura that are developing this kind of market focus on the Amazon because of its obvious marketing appeal. “That’s why we are turning our attention to this area.”

Totalling some US$200,000 over three years, the project is one of countless initiatives, large and small, competing for the spotlight at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. As international negotiators continued to squabble over text on Saturday, Bizzo and his colleagues at Embrapa’s Food Technology centre, located 20 kilometres to the west of the negotiations, paused to talk about their work with a group of visitors.

In many cases, the research focuses on ways to make more efficient use of existing products. For instance, Brazil leads the world in passion fruit production with roughly 650,000 tonnes per year, researchers said, but juice producers typically discard 70 percent of the fruit after the first press. Embrapa is working with producers around Rio to make use of the pulp by producing dried and edible seeds as well as hydrating oil, soaps and other beauty products. In other cases, researchers are developing similar systems that could increase the profitability of products that are new to tropical farmers, such as raspberries and blueberries.

Embrapa scientists are also working to increase the nutritional value of a variety of staple crops designed to be rolled out together in schools to improve children’s health. Using traditional breeding techniques, the researchers have already developed sweet potatoes that contain higher levels of beta-carotene (notice the orange tint in enhanced versions here) as well as a common bean that contains nearly twice the iron content of those typically produced today. Iron deficiency in particular affects millions of children in Brazil, to the point of causing anemia in many children in the poorer northeastern region of the country, says Marília Regini Nutti, a researcher on the project.

For Thomas Rosswall, who chair’s an independent science panel for the Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security research programme at CGIAR, the tour served as a refreshing reminder that Embrapa is working with agricultural producers at all levels rather than focusing solely on things like industrial agriculture and biotechnology. These kinds of projects might seem small, but they can increase profitability for small farmers, he says, “and help keep them on the land.”

As the growth of Rio’s slums might suggest, what happens in rural areas has enormous implications for cities as well. Stay tuned for more on that. Meanwhile, Brazil released the latest negotiating text for Rio+20 late Saturday, and environmentalists are worried that already-weak commitments are getting watered down even further (WWF).



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