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Brazil adopts new rules on biodiversity based R&D for cosmetics, food and pharmaceuticals

On May 20th 2015, Brazil adopted a new legal framework for biodiversity-based research, development and commercialization. The new rules involve a fundamental shift in how companies can access genetic resources and associated traditional knowledge in Brazil, as well as how resulting benefits are shared.

Brazil holds one of the richest biodiversities in the world. It has long been a source of innovation and inspiration for natural ingredients used in food, cosmetics and pharmaceutical products. Yet much remains to be explored: many companies have R&D centers in Brazil that are actively looking to discover new ingredients and applications for its flora.  Moreover, Brazil is also quickly becoming a key market for natural products, with a population of over 200 million and a soaring awareness of biodiversity.

Law 7.735/2014, signed by President Dilma Rousseff at an official ceremony on May 20th, establishes the procedures that companies and other organizations will need to follow to work with Brazilian biodiversity. The new law repeals a 2001 measure on access and benefit sharing, widely criticized as too complex and bureaucratic. For example, authorization to access biodiversity for research and development, until now granted by a national council, will not longer be required. Companies now only have to register on an online database. Benefit sharing, previously negotiated for each individual case, will now fall on the final product manufacturer, and take place primarily through a national trust fund.

President Rousseff described the new law as balancing legal certainty with fair and equitable benefit sharing. It will guarantee, she said, that companies can “without conflict, troubles or disputes” use the genetic heritage and associated traditional knowledge in Brazil. Nevertheless, the law has also been criticized by indigenous peoples and local communities for not sufficiently protecting their rights and interests.

The new legal framework in Brazil will have significant implications for suppliers, laboratories, manufacturers and brands working with Brazilian biodiversity.


NASA satellite reveals how much Saharan dust feeds Amazon's plants

What connects Earth's largest, hottest desert to its largest tropical rain forest?

The Sahara Desert is a near-uninterrupted brown band of sand and scrub across the northern third of Africa. The Amazon rain forest is a dense green mass of humid jungle that covers northeast South America. But after strong winds sweep across the Sahara, a tan cloud rises in the air, stretches between the continents, and ties together the desert and the jungle. It's dust. And lots of it.

For the first time, a NASA satellite has quantified in three dimensions how much dust makes this trans-Atlantic journey. Scientists have not only measured the volume of dust, they have also calculated how much phosphorus - remnant in Saharan sands from part of the desert's past as a lake bed - gets carried across the ocean from one of the planet's most desolate places to one of its most fertile.

A paper published in Geophysical Research Letters, provides the first satellite-based estimate of this phosphorus transport over multiple years, said lead author Hongbin Yu, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Maryland who works at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. A paper published online by Yu and colleagues Jan. 8 in Remote Sensing of the Environment provided the first multi-year satellite estimate of overall dust transport from the Sahara to the Amazon.

This trans-continental journey of dust is important because of what is in the dust, Yu said. Specifically the dust picked up from the Bodélé Depression in Chad, an ancient lake bed where rock minerals composed of dead microorganisms are loaded with phosphorus. Phosphorus is an essential nutrient for plant proteins and growth, which the Amazon rain forest depends on in order to flourish.

Nutrients - the same ones found in commercial fertilizers - are in short supply in Amazonian soils. Instead they are locked up in the plants themselves. Fallen, decomposing leaves and organic matter provide the majority of nutrients, which are rapidly absorbed by plants and trees after entering the soil. But some nutrients, including phosphorus, are washed away by rainfall into streams and rivers, draining from the Amazon basin like a slowly leaking bathtub.

The phosphorus that reaches Amazon soils from Saharan dust, an estimated 22,000 tons per year, is about the same amount as that lost from rain and flooding, Yu said. The finding is part of a bigger research effort to understand the role of dust and aerosols in the environment and on local and global climate.

Dust in the Wind

"We know that dust is very important in many ways. It is an essential component of the Earth system. Dust will affect climate and, at the same time, climate change will affect dust," said Yu. To understand what those effects may be, "First we have to try to answer two basic questions. How much dust is transported? And what is the relationship between the amount of dust transport and climate indicators?"

The new dust transport estimates were derived from data collected by a lidar instrument on NASA's Cloud-Aerosol Lidar and Infrared Pathfinder Satellite Observation, or CALIPSO, satellite from 2007 though 2013.

The data show that wind and weather pick up on average 182 million tons of dust each year and carry it past the western edge of the Sahara at longitude 15W. This volume is the equivalent of 689,290 semi trucks filled with dust. The dust then travels 1,600 miles across the Atlantic Ocean, though some drops to the surface or is flushed from the sky by rain. Near the eastern coast of South America, at longitude 35W, 132 million tons remain in the air, and 27.7 million tons - enough to fill 104,908 semi trucks - fall to the surface over the Amazon basin. About 43 million tons of dust travel farther to settle out over the Caribbean Sea, past longitude 75W.

Yu and colleagues focused on the Saharan dust transport across the Atlantic Ocean to South America and then beyond to the Caribbean Sea because it is the largest transport of dust on the planet.

Dust collected from the Bodélé Depression and from ground stations on Barbados and in Miami give scientists an estimate of the proportion of phosphorus in Saharan dust. This estimate is used to calculate how much phosphorus gets deposited in the Amazon basin from this dust transport.

The seven-year data record, while too short for looking at long-term trends, is nevertheless very important for understanding how dust and other aerosols behave as they move across the ocean, said Chip Trepte, project scientist for CALIPSO at NASA's Langley Research Center in Virginia, who was not involved in either study.

"We need a record of measurements to understand whether or not there is a fairly robust, fairly consistent pattern to this aerosol transport," he said.

Looking at the data year by year shows that that pattern is actually highly variable. There was an 86 percent change between the highest amount of dust transported in 2007 and the lowest in 2011, Yu said.

Why so much variation? Scientists believe it has to do with the conditions in the Sahel, the long strip of semi-arid land on the southern border of the Sahara. After comparing the changes in dust transport to a variety of climate factors, the one Yu and his colleagues found a correlation to was the previous year's Sahel rainfall. When Sahel rainfall increased, the next year's dust transport was lower.

The mechanism behind the correlation is unknown, Yu said. One possibility is that increased rainfall means more vegetation and less soil exposed to wind erosion in the Sahel. A second, more likely explanation is that the amount of rainfall is related to the circulation of winds, which are what ultimately sweep dust from both the Sahel and Sahara into the upper atmosphere where it can survive the long journey across the ocean.

CALIPSO collects "curtains" of data that show valuable information about the altitude of dust layers in the atmosphere. Knowing the height at which dust travels is important for understanding, and eventually using computers to model, where that dust will go and how the dust will interact with Earth's heat balance and clouds, now and in future climate scenarios.

"Wind currents are different at different altitudes," said Trepte. "This is a step forward in providing the understanding of what dust transport looks like in three dimensions, and then comparing with these models that are being used for climate studies."

Climate studies range in scope from global to regional changes, such as those that may occur in the Amazon in coming years. In addition to dust, the Amazon is home to many other types of aerosols like smoke from fires and biological particles, such as bacteria, fungi, pollen, and spores released by the plants themselves. In the future, Yu and his colleagues plan to explore the effects of those aerosols on local clouds - and how they are influenced by dust from Africa.

"This is a small world," Yu said, "and we're all connected together."


Brazil's soy moratorium still needed to preserve Amazon

Today, fewer chicken nuggets can trace their roots to cleared Amazon rain forest.

In 2006, following a report from Greenpeace and under pressure from consumers, large companies like McDonald's and Wal-Mart decided to stop using soy grown on cleared forestland in the Brazilian Amazon. This put pressure on commodity traders, such as Cargill, who in turn agreed to no longer purchase soy from farmers who cleared rain forest to expand soy fields.

The private sector agreement, a type of supply chain governance, is called the Soy Moratorium and it was intended to address the deforestation caused by soy production in the Amazon. In a new study to evaluate the agreement published in Science, the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Holly Gibbs and colleagues across the U.S. and Brazil show that the moratorium helped to drastically reduce the amount of deforestation linked to soy production in the region and was much better at curbing it than governmental policy alone.

"What we found is that before the moratorium, 30 percent of soy expansion occurred through deforestation, and after the moratorium, almost none did; only about 1 percent of the new soy expansion came at the expense of forest," says Gibbs, a professor of environmental studies and geography in the UW-Madison Nelson Institute's Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment (SAGE).

Between 2001 and 2006, prior to the moratorium, soybean fields in the Brazilian Amazon expanded by 1 million hectares, or nearly 4,000 square miles, contributing to record deforestation rates. By 2014, after eight years of the moratorium, almost no additional forest was cleared to grow new soy, even though soy production area had expanded another 1.3 million hectares. Farmers were planting on already cleared land.

The findings are intended to help policy makers and industry leaders make informed decisions going forward.

"We really wanted to understand if the Soy Moratorium mattered," says Gibbs. "There was a lot of discussion about ending the moratorium in 2014 and we wanted to know what the agreement meant on the ground and how it compared with governmental policy, which is the proposed replacement."

Brazil, Gibbs says, has some of the world's most stringent environmental legislation. Public policies, including increased enforcement of state and federal laws, have gone a long way to slow the destruction of rain forest. Yet, the study shows that "government policy alone is simply not enough," Gibbs says. At least, not yet.

Using 15 years (2000-2014) of satellite-based imagery covering the Brazilian Amazon forest and the Cerrado, another large tropical biome in Brazil comprising woodlands and scrublands, the researchers assessed how much land had been cleared to grow soy. They examined land use on thousands of individual farms and identified substantial large-scale deforestations not penalized by Brazilian authorities.

The team also mapped already-cleared areas suitable for soy production to assess the potential for future expansion under the Soy Moratorium and determined how much illegal deforestation was still occurring for purposes other than soy and in direct violation of Brazil Forest Code laws.

What the team found was surprising.

"Only 115 people out of several thousand soy farmers have violated the Soy Moratorium since 2006, but over 600 of them have violated the Forest Code," Gibbs says. "So, this same group of farmers is five times more likely to violate the governmental policy than they are to violate the private sector agreement."

For instance, the Forest Code dictates that 80 percent of Amazon rain forest on a person's property must be held in reserve; they can only clear 20 percent. Yet, just 2 percent of soy farmers have maintained their legal reserve and even farmers abiding by the moratorium were still illegally clearing forest on their properties, just not for growing soy.

A provision in the Forest Code also requires that property owners register their land, after which their name and a clear map of their property becomes publicly available. While the researchers say this is a huge step forward, the study found that property registration alone does not safeguard forests. For example, nearly a quarter of the illegal deforestation that occurred over the last year in the state of Mato Grosso, the Amazon's "soy capital," happened on these registered properties.

Additionally, the researchers found that while soy-linked deforestation diminished in the Amazon biome, 20 percent of new soy areas created in the Cerrado over the study period directly led to deforestation. Expanding the moratorium to the Cerrado would reduce this conversion.

"It reinforces the idea that private sector interventions will be needed in the long term to maintain the deforestation-free production of soy," says Gibbs, who notes that soy is Brazil's most profitable crop and that most goes to feed animals produced for food. "Without the moratorium, chicken nuggets would once again contribute to rain forest destruction."

Implementing environmental laws across the Brazilian Amazon, an area more than six times the size of Texas, is a huge challenge, and Gibbs points out that enforcement has significantly ramped up in recent years. Despite this, the study found that government enforcement efforts capture only between 15 and 50 percent of illegal, large-scale deforestation. Even then, many factors make execution of fines and other penalties difficult.

Meanwhile, the study shows that a small number of soy traders, like Cargill, ADM and Bunge, have "a lot of power and control to influence land management decisions on the ground," says Gibbs.

The study also found there is enough already-cleared, suitable land in the Amazon to allow soy production area to expand by 600 percent. Presently, the area of land used to grow soy in the Amazon is comparable to the size of Vermont. Brazil rivals only the U.S. in terms of soy production and trade.

The team continues to use satellite data and field surveys to better understand deforestation dynamics and land use decisions in the Brazilian Amazon and Cerrado, the most active land use frontiers in the world. Gibbs and colleagues are also conducting econometric analysis to evaluate the interplay between deforestation and the Soy Moratorium, one of the first voluntary zero-deforestation agreements in the world.

Ensuring this reduced deforestation continues is a priority for those involved, and Gibbs says new approaches to the policy — that combine elements from public and private strategies — are being considered.

"We work closely with policymakers, the agricultural industry and nongovernmental organizations, and aim to use our rigorous scientific analysis to help inform decisions going forward," Gibbs says.


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