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Pesticide use rises in Brazil as GM crop plantings increase

1. Use of pesticides is intensified in Brazil
2. The problem of secondary pests

NOTE: The use of pesticides continues to rise in Brazil as GM crop planting increases, according to an article (item 1 below) published in the country's leading economics and finance newspaper, Valor Economico.

A man from Brazilian agribiz consulting firm Celeres tries to mitigate the damage caused by these findings by claiming that without GM crops, the rise in pesticide use would have been even greater.

And a man from the pesticide industry association Sindag claims that prior to this trend, Brazilian agriculture was suffering from pesticide "under-dosing"! This creative argument strikes us as equivalent to claiming that someone who has cancer was suffering from a shortage of chemotherapy before they fell ill.

A second article from Valor Economico (item 2 below) reports that Brazil's Bt maize crop, engineered to kill Armyworm caterpillars, has been threatened with infestation by aphids. Only a return to chemical insecticides saved the crop.
1. Use of pesticides is intensified in Brazil
By Gerson Freitas Jr. | Sao Paulo
Valor Economico (Brazil)
July 30, 2012
English translation of Portuguese original, "Uso de defensivos e intensificado no Brasil"
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Brazilian farmers are using more pesticides on their crops. Despite the significant growth of the area cultivated with transgenic seeds, a technology that promises to reduce chemical use in agricultural production, sales of these products increased by over 72% between 2006 and 2012 – from 480,100 to 826,700 tons according to data from Sindag, the association that represents pesticide manufacturers in the country.

In the same period, the area planted with grains, fiber, coffee and sugar cane grew by less than 19%, from 68.8 million to 81.7 million hectares, according to the National Company for Supply (Conab). This means that the average consumption of pesticides, which was little more than 7 kilograms per hectare in 2005, rose to 10.1 kilograms in 2011 – an increase of 43.2%.

Trend is kept

In spite of increase of GM crops, sales of pesticides continue to grow.

Genetically modified crops increase in the country
Adoption of biotechnology by States from 2005 to 2011 in million hectares

Chart – Genetically modified crops increase in the country
Soy leads
Main GM crops in the country in million hectares

Chart – Main GM crops in the country in million hectares

Among the major categories of products, sales of fungicides were the fastest growing. Between 2006 and 2011, the annual use of the product to combat diseases like soybean rust more than tripled, from 56 thousand to 174 thousand tons. Sales of insecticides advanced almost 84% from 93,100 to 170,900 tons. In turn, supplies of herbicides, chemicals used to fight weeds, reached 403,600 tons – an increase of 44% compared to 279,200 tons recorded in 2006.

Sales of pesticides turned nearly $8.5 billion in Brazil in 2011 – twice the number found in 2005. This is the second largest market in the world, behind only the United States.

The significant increase in the use of pesticides occurred in the same period in which the cultivation of GM crops gave its big leap in the country. Since 2005, the year Brazil enacted its Law on Biosafety, the area planted with genetically modified seeds has more than tripled, from 9.4 million to 32 million hectares. Only the cultivation of GM maize with Bt technology – which protects the crops from the attacks of caterpillars and avoids the use of insecticides for this purpose – jumped from zero to nearly 10 million hectares, according to the latest data from consultancy Celeres.

Anderson Galvao, Celeres CEO, says there is no contradiction in increased sales of both transgenic and pesticides. "While biotech assume a lower use of pesticides, the baseline is very low," he explains. He argues that until the middle of last decade – lean years in Brazilian agriculture – farmers applied less chemicals than necessary to combat pests in crops because of the need to cut costs. With rising incomes in recent years, however, producers were able to invest more in dealing with plantations. "Were it not for biotechnology, this growth would have been even greater," he says. "The fact is that the technological intensity of production is growing. What we had before was a problem of under-dosing," says Ivan Sampaio, manager of information at Sindag.

Narciso Barison Neto, president of the Brazilian Association of Seeds and Seedlings (Abrasem), states that part of the increase in pesticide use due to the arrival of Asian soybean rust in the past decade. "The control of the disease required a greater number of applications. And then it is immaterial whether soy is genetically modified or not, because we do not have a product that is immune to rust," he adds.

Anyway, the benefits of biotechnology in relation to the use of pesticides in the plantations are still marginal. According to Celeres, the planting of transgenic seeds spared the use of 4900 tons of pesticides in the 2010/11 crop – less than 1.5% of the total volume sprayed. As from the season of 1996/97, time when the first transgenic arrived in Brazil, the cumulative savings did not exceed 14,500 tons.

Celeres project, however, that the gains will be more significant in the next decade, with the consolidation of technology and the arrival of new varieties in the country, such as soybeans resistant to insects. At the end of season 2020/21, Brazil will have left to consume just over 146 thousand tons of pesticides, they estimate.

Corn and cotton, which account for approximately 22% of pesticides sold in the country, are the crops that have most benefited by the adoption of biotechnology. According to Celeres in the 2010/11 crop, GM maize crops of Parana, insect resistant and herbicide tolerant, required 24.7% less pesticides in the harvest of summer than conventional tillage (4.5 pounds compared to 6.2 kilograms per hectare). In Mato Grosso, in transgenic cotton plantations (also insect resistant and herbicide tolerant), the reduction was 2.8% (13.6 pounds compared to 14 kilograms per hectare) on average.

However, transgenic soybean crops – a crop that alone uses 48% of all pesticides sold in the country – require more intensive use of pesticides than conventional soybeans. In Parana, for example, the fields with the Roundup Ready Technology (RR) of Monsanto consumed an average of 3.6 kilograms per hectare of agrochemicals, 16.2% more than the 3.1 kilograms consumed in conventional [soy] crops. The advantage to the producer is the management: in RR crops, they replace several herbicides by one product, glyphosate, but in larger doses.

Other factors contribute to offset the potential positive effects of biotechnology on pesticide use, such as the increasing resistance of weeds to glyphosate and the emergence of secondary pests (see article below). "The fungal disease has never been a big concern as regards the maize crops because the focus has always been the control of the caterpillar. Since this problem was solved with GMOs, producers now have to worry about [fungal disease]. Therefore there is likely to be an increase in sales of fungicides for corn in the coming years," Galvão predicts.
2. The problem of secondary pests
English translation of Portuguese original, "O problema das pragas secundarias"
By Janice Kiss | São Paulo
Valor Econômico, July 30, 2012

The maize-aphid (Rhopalosiphum maidis), an insect that sucks plant sap and leaves malformed cobs, never posed a threat to farmers in Jatai (State of Goias), one of the major production centers of winter maize in the country. But in April, the pest showed indication of its danger when it was about to attack a good part of the 150,000 hectares of the 2011/12 [Bt corn] crop in the region. "It was one of those scares," recalls Luis Batista, an agronomist at Pioneer.

The damage was only averted – did not affect 10% of the harvest that was completed earlier this month – because farmers received the alert, from the company itself and producer associations, that they should spray their crops at full flowering stage, with application of insecticide at a cost of $ 40 per hectare. "Only it would end in a mess that was to come," says the agronomist.

The worry of the growers in Jatai was proportional to the scale of adoption of Bt corn, which reached 85% this season's crops, and tends to reach its entirety next year. The crop is resistant to the caterpillar (Spodoptera frugiperda, Fall Armyworm), the main pest attacking conventional crops and is caused damages in the past in the order of USD 400 million per year according to Embrapa Maize and Sorghum (MG).

"The technology has allowed the producer to suspend the application of insecticide to combat the caterpillar – three to four sprays when the crop was conventional," says Batista. But the aphid, which is considered a secondary pest, took advantage of the absence of the product. "Luckily, only one application was enough to keep the crops unharmed," says the agronomist. According to him, this will be the recommendation from now.

The worries of the producers of Goias is one more case that casts the reputation of GM crops into doubt, with the question of how such a cutting-edge technology, which took a number of years of research and hundreds of millions of dollars to be developed, can be susceptible to secondary pests such as the maize aphid. In Luiz Batista's assessment, the producers were lulled into a false sense of security by the claimed advantages. "They failed to take into account that agriculture is not an exact science," he says.

Eltje Loman, a producer in Ponta Grossa (PR) and general manager of the ABC Foundation, a research institution formed by the Parana Agrofarming Cooperatives Capal (Arapoti), Batavo and Castrolanda, shares the opinion of the agronomist. "When GM emerged, many producers believed that agriculture would be simplified," he says.

As an agronomist engineer, he knows there is no easy job in this area. One must remain alert to the attack of pests, understand that the area of refuge serves to decrease the incidence of resistant pests, and continue to deal with weeds such as Buva (Conyza bonariensis) and Bitter Grass (Elionurus candidus), which have proven resistant to glyphosate used in connection with Roundup Ready (RR) soy, the most commonly used herbicide in the world, and which have propagated wildly in plantations in Rio Grande do Sul and Paraná. They became a problem for the technology that promises to facilitate handling and reduce the use of pesticides, the reasons for its advantage being to provide gains of up to $66 per hectare, according to studies carried out by the Institute of Agricultural Economics (IEA).

To control them, the researchers insist on the ABC Foundation's guidelines for operating the farm: rotation of crops, use of herbicides with different active ingredients (so that the weeds do not grow resistant to them), observing the timetable for applications and 10% of safe haven (refuge areas) in the case of soybeans, as required by law. "Those who did not observe the use of refuges, spent about $150 per hectare, with two or three applications of pesticides to control the presence of weeds," says Loman.

The advantages propagated regarding transgenic crops, which promise a yield 10% higher on average took a while to convince the 2350 producers belonging to the ABC Group, formed by the same cooperatives that make up the foundation. They saw no reason to abandon the cultivation of conventional soy. "We thought that the transgenic varieties made available at the time were not as efficient," recalls Eltje Loman.

Since 2008, genetically modified crops (soybeans and Bt corn later) began to make advances in the region. Today, they occupy 70% of 100,000 hectares belonging to the group. For Loman, the late adoption of technology helped to understand it better and he does not believe that it alone would solve traditional problems of agriculture – such as resistance to pests and weeds. The region now produces 3,400 kilograms of grain per hectare, above the national average of 3000 kilograms.

The researcher Dionysius Gazziero Pisa, of Embrapa Soja (Paraná) studies weeds since the 1970s and knows that in order to contain them, there is no recipe to replace the crop rotation with wheat and oats for the South and the use of herbicides with different mechanisms of action. "This is the basic manual of agriculture, no matter the technology used," he analyzes. But the researcher recognizes that it is not easy to change the double soy/maize crop to a less profitable crop such as wheat. "Economic pressure leaves no other alternative," he says.