Genetic Resources Management at the Brazilian Agricultural Research Organization

Source: Embrapa Genetic Resources and Biotechnology

Since the beginning of the 1970s, there has been a growing concern in Brazil with the need to preserve genetic resources essential for food and agriculture. At that time, FAO stimulated the establishment of a world-wide network of Centers for Conservation of Genetic Resources.

In 1974 the Brazilian Government created, within the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation – Embrapa, a research unit whose basic mission was to coordinate the appropriate means of management of the genetic resources of the country. The unit, located in Brasilia, was called the National Centre of Genetic Resources (CENARGEN).

In 1984 it incorporated also research in modern biotechnology, aimed at the conservation and sustainable use of genetic resources, becoming the Genetic Resources and Biotechnology Center of Embrapa.

With the creation of the Genetic Resources and Biotechnology Center, conditions were established for the development of a National Network of Genetic Resources in Brazil. This helped to organize and increase the efficiency
of activities of collection, exchange, quarantine, characterization, evaluation, documentation, conservation and utilization of germplasm in the country.

Research in Genetic Resources has provided key support to the tremendous technological advances obtained by the Brazilian agriculture over the last decades, by enabling the R&D system to incorporate and utilize genetic variability for development of plant cultivars, breeds of animals and strains of micro-organisms of importance to the agroindustry and agrifood sectors in the country.

Also, Embrapa and its partner organizations have made significant efforts to raise awareness of the strategic importance of genetic resources and biodiversity for the country’s future.  Considerable efforts have been made to conserve and to promote the sustainable use of native plants of economic and social importance, through in situ and on farm management strategies.  These programs helped increase the understanding of the environmental and social values of agrobiodiversity for the country.

The Genetic Resources Management System

Since its establishment, Embrapa was entrusted with the duty of promoting and making possible the safe introduction and conservation of germplam that are strategic for food and agriculture in the country. The Genetic Resources and Biotechnology Center is Embrapa´s research unit responsible for coordinating genetic resources management activities through a National Research Platform.

The major activities of this Platform are:

  1. enrichment: germplasm collection, introduction, exchange and quarantine;
  2. conservation: in situ (either in nature or on-farm) and ex situ (seeds in cold storage; explants in vitro; microorganisms culture; cryopreservation of semen, embryos and oocytes);
  3. characterization: phenotypic and genetic; and
  4. information.

In order to carry out these activities, Embrapa has created its Curatorship System in the early 1980s. Over the last decade, this system has been improved in order to define, systematize and integrate all key activities for germplasm management, conservation and use.

In 2009, there were 38 Product or Product Group Curators, 35 Assistant Curators, 111 Germplasm Bank Curators, as well as Ad hoc Curators, making a total of about 200 professionals involved in the germplasm curatorships system. This system feeds a network of 350 Active Germplasm Banks as well as a Base Collection (long term conservation) containing 212 genera, 668 species and in excess of 107,000 accessions. It provides support to hundreds of public and private genetic breeding programs developed across Brazil.

The Embrapa Genetic Resources and Biotechnology Center has also carried out, since the mid-1970s, the collection of germplasm.  Over 800 collecting missions have been undertaken all over Brazil, to access natural populations directly in the field. In this enterprise, which has been carried out in all the main Brazilian biomes, cultivated materials have also been obtained in fairs, regional markets, and other localities.

Collecting has generally been done in partnership with other research institutions. Many collected materials have been subject of ongoing characterization and development projects since then, such as pineapple, cotton, peanut, rice, sweet potato, cashew, yam, native forages (grasses and legumes), beans, cassava, maize, palms, peppers, rubber tree, various ornamental species, forest trees, medicinal plants, among others.

Besides focusing on specific products, since the 1990s projects have aimed at recovering germplasm in areas facing environmental impacts and risks of loss of genetic resources.   This work has been particularly focused on areas to be flooded by hydroelectric installations. Also, new species are being sought as potential new alternatives for  agriculture. Among other reasons, this is done in order to overcome the dependence on exotic germplasm.

The in situ conservation of cattle, horses, buffaloes, donkeys, goats, sheep and pigs is being carried out by many Conservation Nuclei, located in the animal’s original habitat. Ex situ conservation is done at the Brazilian Animal Germplasm Bank (AGB), also kept at the Embrapa Genetic Resources and Biotechnology Center, in Brasilia.  This bank is responsible for the storage of semen and embryos of various breeds of domestic animals, some under risk of extinction.

The conservation of microbial genetic resources is also carried out by the National Genetic Resources Platform, since microorganisms play an important role in sustainable agriculture in tropical regions, in special nitrogen fixing bacteria and agents of biological pest control.  The Network of Microbial Genetic Resources promotes the integrated management of collections of microorganisms located in many different Embrapa units. The main focus of the network is in prospecting biodiversity and maintaining biological collections and related information.

The main resources represented in the network are microorganisms of interest for food and health, microorganisms for biological control, microorganisms of interest for animal health, plant pathogens, diverse soil microorganisms and DNA collections of microbial genetic resources. Today, the network integrates 29 collections and a total of 28.000 isolates conserved.

Rules and Regulations Affecting Biological Resources Access and Exchange in Brazil

International exchange of genetic resources was practiced by Brazil in the course of the 20th century without great formality, based on the principle of reciprocity, which benefited public institutions involved in research and development, universities, and seed producing private companies, among others.  Embrapa has carried out exchange and quarantine of germplasm imported for research since 1976.

However, in a complex international environment, influenced by strategic interests in biological resources, by progress in technological fronts that rely heavily on genetic variability, and by the consolidation of a legal framework for the protection of knowledge, relations between countries as well as between organizations has changed substantially over the past two decades.

The provisions of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CDB), which has led to the adoption of national legislations asserting sovereignty over biological resources, have had negative impacts on the flow of genetic resources worldwide.  Brazil is a Party to the CBD and the country adopted a formal commitment with its three main objectives – the conservation of the biological diversity, the sustainable use of its components and the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits attained with this use.

Also, Brazil and other countries are subject to interactions among several other international regimes that impact access and use of biological resources, such as the WTO Agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), the Convention of the Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV), the International Undertaking on Plant Genetic Resources (IU) and, more recently, the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA), facilitated by FAO.

Being a megadiverse country, Brazil was a pioneer in establishing legal instruments to regulate the access and the use of the genetic resources under national legislation. The Brazilian Government has enacted a Provisional Act in 2001 to regulate access and use of Brazilian biological diversity and to incorporate the principles and purposes of the CBD.

This Provisional Act establishes that the access to genetic resources found in the Brazilian territory and to any associated traditional knowledge for purposes of scientific research, technological development or biodiversity prospecting is subject to the prior authorization of the ‘Brazilian Genetic Heritage Management Council’ (CGEN).

Although the principle of sovereignty of the States over their genetic resources and the need to develop strategies to ensure benefit sharing among providers and users are generally well accepted, the instruments that are been adopted around the world have been frequently questioned. There is much concern over excessive protection of resources which have not even been assessed. Also, there is a sense that the legislations being developed are overly restrictive,
inhibiting research and development initiatives.

Therefore, and considering the complexity of international policy landscapes, national and institutional regulations related to access and use of biological resources, it is increasingly important that countries interested in starting or maintaining cooperation in this area acquire information that help them overcome limitations encountered during negotiations for access and sharing of resources.

Policy research may provide the means for comprehensive analysis of the complex policy landscape affecting access and use of biological resources, as well as development of decision support tools to facilitate planning and implementation of collaboration dependent on exchange and sharing of genetic resources, assuring full compliance with rules and regulations in place as well as benefits to the collaborating countries.

Brazil is a megadiverse country, with a large network of organizations and programs dedicated to research in food, agriculture and bioindustrial uses of plant, animal and microorganisms. The country will face immense difficulties to tap, by itself, the immense potential represented in its wealth of biological resources. Strong priority must be directed to cooperation if the country is going to pursue its vision of conservation based in sustainable use of these resources.

Further Information:

The state of Brazil’s plant genetic resources – second national report : conservation and sustainable utilization for food and agriculture.  Technical editors: Arthur da Silva Mariante, Maria Jose Amstalden Sampaio, Maria Cléria Valadares Inglis. Brasília, DF.  Embrapa Technological Information, 2009.

Embrapa Genetic Resources and Biotechnology

The Brazilian Genetic Resources Platform

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