Greetings from Brazil!

On Sunday I left Buenos Aires and arrived in São Paulo, Brazil. I still have to analyze my interviews with Argentine farmers and will write a post about my findings soon, but wanted to share what I’ve been doing for the past week.

On Monday I had time for a short walking tour of São Paulo before I had to catch a 6PM flight to the city of Londrina, Brazil. In 2013, I spent a summer in Londrina as a World Food Prize Borlaug-Ruan International Intern at Embrapa-soja, a publicly owned research company that investigates soybean diseases, genetics, agronomy, and more. This week I got to return for a new research project. Here is a picture of me on my first day of work three years ago looking terrified to be abroad alone for the first time, and me on Tuesday ecstatic to return to my wonderful Brazilian friends and a fascinating research institution.

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I’ve spent this week catching up with friends and learning about Embrapa’s work with biotechnology. They recently commercialized a variety of soybean that is resistant to a new herbicide, which allows farmers to control weeds that are resistant to glyphosate. When I asked plant geneticists what they thought about the over-application of herbicide and the resistant weeds that result, they were quick to point out that it was the misuse of chemicals by farmers, and not transgenic technology that was the problem. They said agronomists, not crop breeders or geneticists should take the blame.

In case you’re not familiar with the different forms of agricultural science, breeders and geneticists are the people who create new seed varieties, normally in a lab. Agronomists are supposed to study how the different components of an agricultural system such as seeds, soil, insects, pesticides, and precipitation function together. Ideally, they would advise a farmer to use Herbicide A in 2016 and Herbicide B in 2017, so any weeds that developed resistance to A would be killed by B the next year. This action would reduce overall herbicide application because the weeds would be more sensitive to small doses. The Embrapa scientists say that most agronomists in Brazil work for private companies, so have an interest in selling particular herbicides instead of advising rotation with their competitor’s brand. This makes it easy and cheap for farmers to use glyphosate and glyphosate-resistant seeds every year. Thus, while Embrapa scientists’ claim sounds reasonable in theory, I think they underestimate the importance of viewing the technology within the context of an economic system that makes it so difficult for farmers to use herbicide-resistant seeds responsibly. I’m looking forward to meeting with farmers next week to hear their thoughts.

A biosafety sign in an Embrapa test field recently containing GM soy

A biosafety sign in an Embrapa test field recently containing GM soy

Outside of the lab, I’ve enjoyed spending time with friends and eating a lot of Brazilian food such as açaí and coxinha (a fried ball of chicken and breading). I took a Portuguese class for three months, so it’s also been fun to practice a new language. I thought it would be easy, but it turns out that not everyone speaks as slowly or clearly as my Portuguese teacher. So far I’ve understood enough to get by, but when it comes to speaking I can only nod and say “yes,” “no,” and “very good!” without taking three minutes to formulate a response. Luckily I can often speak a mix of Spanish, English, and broken Portuguese and still get by. In any case, I’m grateful to be back spending time with lovely friends, old and new.

Enjoying dinner and conversations in Portuñol-glish with my Brazilian friends Juliana and Douglas, and their Spanish friend Pablo

Enjoying dinner and conversations in Portuñol-glish with my Brazilian friends Juliana and Douglas, and their Spanish friend Pablo