The new Engineering Research Center will be hosted by São Paulo State University’s School of Agrarian and Veterinary Sciences in Jaboticabal. Its scientists will also research biotechnology and plant resistance (photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Published on 03/25/2021
By Maria Fernanda Ziegler | Agência FAPESP – FAPESP and São Martinho, one of Brazil’s largest sugar and fuel ethanol producers, have chosen São Paulo State University’s School of Agrarian and Veterinary Sciences (FCAV-UNESP) in Jaboticabal to host a new Engineering Research Center (ERC) that will develop sugarcane pest and disease control systems.
Investment in the ERC for Sugarcane Plant Health will total BRL 8 million over five years. The ERC will focus on biological and behavioral control using fungi, bacteria and pheromones (substances that attract pests), for example, to protect plants while eliminating chemical pesticides or at least reducing the amounts applied to crops.
The ERC will also conduct research and development in the fields of biotechnology and plant resistance, with an emphasis on the genetic improvement of varieties by conventional cross-breeding.
FAPESP will invest BRL 4 million via its ERC program, and São Martinho will also invest BRL 4 million. UNESP will contribute by paying the salaries of researchers, support personnel and staff to run infrastructure and facilities. The project may be renewed for another five years.
“We’re confident that university-industry interaction will produce positive results for the economy and society. São Martinho considers innovation to be one of the main drivers of its development. We have great expectations for the project, which has the potential to create a new innovation ecosystem for Brazil,” said Walter Maccheroni, São Martinho’s innovation manager.
São Martinho has more than 300,000 hectares of sugarcane and the capacity to crush 24 million metric tons per year.
Four growing challenges
“Our goal for the ERC is to encompass all biological, ecological and epidemiological aspects of pests and diseases and to contribute to the development of innovative control methods for an industry that prioritizes biological control wherever possible,” said Odair Aparecido Fernandes, a professor at FCAV-UNESP and the ERC’s principal investigator.
São Martinho has chosen sugarcane wilt syndrome, the sugarcane weevil Sphenophorus levis and the borer Hyponeuma taltula as its main research foci for the ERC.
In addition to these three pests, which challenge sugarcane growers throughout Brazil, another priority is control of the stable fly Stomoxys calcitrans. This species does not attack sugarcane, but its larvae develop in cane straw during the period when plantations are fertilized with vinasse. They emerge to attack cattle in nearby pastures, leading to financial losses for ranchers, especially in the western portion of the state of São Paulo as well as in the states of Mato Grosso do Sul and Goiás.
According to Fernandes, these pests and diseases have all become increasingly important in recent years because they are associated with environmentally enhanced techniques that avoid the burning of sugarcane leaves.
“Not setting fire to leaves left on the ground as a trash mulch covering is very important from an environmental standpoint,” he said. “Our advances in planting and harvesting techniques have been important environmentally, but a side effect is the resurgence of these pests and diseases. The ERC’s main remit is to innovate in biological control to avoid having to resort to old-fashioned methods.”
The ERC will have 31 researchers, including the group from FCAV-UNESP and partners from the Campinas Agronomic Institute (IAC), the São Paulo State Agribusiness Technology Agency (APTA), Coplana Cooperativa Agroindustrial, the Federal University of São Carlos (UFSCar), Ituverava Educational Foundation, and the University of Franca.
“We’ve brought together entomologists, cytopathologists and researchers linked to education and technology transfer,” Fernandes said. “In addition to scientific development, we’re aiming to transfer knowledge to producers and schools.”
FAPESP has so far established 11 ERCs, in partnership with corporations such as Shell, Koppert, Equinor, GlaxoSmithKline, Natura and EMBRAPA, among others. More information on the ERC program can be found at www.fapesp.br/cpe/home.