The story behind the development of the first genetically modified cane is an example of the attempts and mistakes of science – common to all countries, because of the uncertainties of the discoveries, but even more difficult in a country like Brazil, where economic oscillations cause other obstacles.
The work that mill owners now benefit from began to be developed in the late 1990s, when the Foundation for Research Support of the State of São Paulo (FAPESP) decided to encourage the then incipient genomics – branch of biochemistry that studies and modifies the genome of an organism.
A virtual network was set up with 60 laboratories. “The bacterium (whose gene would be deciphered) had to be important and with a relatively small genome,” says Fernando Reinach, State columnist and then one of the coordinators of Fapesp’s scientific board and responsible for the creation of the network.
The first sequencing was from xylella, which attacks orange groves causing the disease known as yellow. A $ 39 million apprenticeship was begun, the equivalent of 2.5% of Fapesp’s budget from 1997 to 2003. It resulted in a fall of 43% from infected orange groves to less than 3%. It also developed a critical mass of researchers that put Brazil on the frontier of knowledge in the area. The research was highlighted in the international press.
Following the sequencing of xylella’s genome, the first initiatives aimed at transforming academic knowledge into practical and commercial applications emerged. In 2002, companies such as Scylla bioinformatics, Alellyx applied genomics and, in the following year, CanaVialis cane breeding were born.
At the time leading Votorantim Novos Negócios, Reinach was the developer of Alellyx and CanaVialis, in which US $ 30 million were invested. “We had a partnership to use Monsanto’s genes in the cane and, when they saw that we were capable, they saw value in the company.” In 2008, Monsanto paid $ 300 million for the company in the midst of the global financial crisis.
With the price of oil at $ 150 a barrel, large agribusiness companies saw an unparalleled future in biofuel. “Sugarcane was going to dominate the world,” says Paulo Furquim, professor of economics at Insper and a specialist in the field. “The investments here and in the US were very large, but the advancement of science has a character of unpredictability.” With the discovery of shale gas in the US, the pre-salt in Brazil and concerns about a possible food crisis, biofuel has dwindled before it happened. In Brazil, the Dilma government policy, which held inflation by not re-pricing oil products and provoking an enormous crisis in the ethanol sector, threw the lime blade in research investments.
All major international groups, Monsanto included, closed the research units in the area in Brazil. “It was October 2015: we thought we were going to a meeting where we would discuss bonuses,” says biologist Camila Fornezari Rabello, who manages molecular analysis teams at the CTC. “We were all fired.” Agustina Gentile, then leader of protocol development at Monsanto, recalls that, in that year, they worked with a variety of sugarcane very difficult to modify. “We were successful but, at the time of the results, everything was burned,” says Agustina, now the CTC’s molecular characterization leader. With strict biosafety rules, the multinational destroyed all the research.
At the same time that Monsanto was closing its doors, the CTC was catching its breath. Created in 1969 by Coopersucar, it was a research center that solved basic operational problems of the sector, supported by mill owners. In 2011, Teixeira Leite, who was president of Monsanto in Canada and Brazil when transgenic canola and soybeans were launched, was taken to the company with the mission to reinvent it: the CTC would become independent, banking with royalties. With the reduction of the incremental gains that it produced, it was necessary to invest in research in high-end areas, so that the farmer would pay for them. “The CTC was a fellow in his early forties, trained at Harvard and speaking five languages, but who lived with his mother and earned an allowance,” he says.
BNDESPar (the BNDES shareholding arm) and the Financier of Studies and Projects (Finep) joined the 154 mills that were banking to create the most modern laboratory in the area. The hirings were made in international and foreign competitors, in addition to 30 people who stayed on the street with the closing of Monsanto.
Today, with 400 employees, of which two-thirds are researchers, the CTC has been in the blue since the harvest of 2013/2014 and must earn R $ 180 million this year. Listed on Bovespa More since 2016, but without shares traded, is preparing for the IPO in a few more years. The information is from the newspaper O Estado de S. Paulo.