Interview with Pr. Heitor Cantarella, member of the jury for the Innovation Awards

To end our series of interviews, we met with Pr. Heitor Cantarella, Director of the Soils and Environmental Resources Center at the Agronomic Institute of Campinas, Brazil, the laureate of the IFA Norman Borlaug Award 2017 for his cutting-edge work to reduce greenhouse gas emissions associated with fertilizer use in the tropics.


Could you please introduce yourself and your main areas of expertise?

I am the Director of the Soils and Environmental Resources Center at the Agronomic Institute of Campinas (IAC, in Portuguese) in Brazil. I hold a Ph.D. in Soil Fertility from Iowa State University in the US and I have a  significant experience on soil fertility and plant nutrition. I have been developing research on soil fertility and plant nutrition with a focus on nitrogen issues. I have also been working on nutrients use efficiency. More recently, I have been working on the greenhouse gases and nutrient cycling in sugarcane for ethanol biofuel production.

At IAC, we are in charge of writing fertilizer recommendations for farmers. Our goal is to transform our research results into practical recommendations for Brazilian crop farmers and transferring our knowledge to them. We produce the guidelines for fertilizer recommendations for over 100 crops.  Our group has also developed methods of soil analysis that are adequate to tropical soils and that can also be used for soils around the world. This is the case of the ion exchange resin used in rotine for extracting plant available phosphorus. With this we make sure that farmers will use fertilizer based on sound criteria to optimize yields, economic returns without jeopardizing the environment.

In addition to the development of these methods, we coordinate a soil exchange program, or soil proficiency test, with 136 laboratories from Brazil and several other countries.

I’ve served in several committees along my life. I am one of the coordinators of a bioenergy program in Sao Paulo that has given grants to around 200 projects in the past 10 years. I also coordinate the Nutrients for Life program in Brazil as well. This initiative is carried out by the fertilizer association ANDA in Brazil, in which Timac Agro Brazil is also involved, and its goal is to reach out the lay people and show the benefits of fertilizers and that nutrients in food products ultimately come from fertilizers.


What is the history and the links between your Department and the Groupe Roullier?

I worked on several projects with the Groupe Roullier, with a special focus on nitrogen studies. One of these projects was to study ammonia volatization loss from different fertilizers sources and how to decrease that loss. We tested several formulations that the Groupe Roullier prepared, and we measured how much nitrogen we could save by decreasing ammonia volatization losses. This was to help the Group to develop one of its innovative products that was to be placed in the Brazilian market.


What is your opinion about the collaborations between private companies, like the Groupe Roullier, and scientists?

I do think that the collaborations between private companies and scientists are very important for both parties, mainly because scientists have the opportunity to share their knowledge with the companies. For the scientists, it is really important to know what the industry is doing, what directions are taken and how they can help collaborate with the private sector, because in the end, the farmers will use industrial products. So, it is a two-way collaboration in which both parties learn a lot and can share knowledge. I really recommend this type of collaborations.


For you, what are the main criteria of a good collaboration between a university and a private company?

I am convinced that we live in complementary worlds because as scientists, we usually go into the details of things whereas the industry has a straight forward view. Industry has to be practical, to transform knowledge into products that are viable to be used in real life by farmers.
Moreover, a good collaboration comes with a true interaction between scientists and the industry. This interaction is crucial as we, scientists, want that what we do, the research we’re working on, reach the farmers. So, the interaction with the industry is very useful in this sense. Because the industry is always trying to expand its activities, we have to follow these changes and help to innovate. Ultimately we are all working to increase yields and help the farmers, by creating new products and technologies.


You are used to participate in evaluation committee, could you please describe your experience in the evaluation of research projects?

Indeed, I took part of several evaluation committes for many years with private companies, but mostly with governmental organizations and funding agencies. For example, I wrote evaluations for research proposals for 20 years for CNPQ, which is a Brazilian funding agency. I also worked for more than 10 years at the FAPESP agricultural committee where my role was to help to decide which projects would be granted money.


What could be the 3 advices you would give to the candidates for the Innovation Awards?

A few hints, first of all have a clear objective, saying what is new and where you want to get with the proposal. Second, show that you will use an adequate methodology to test your hypothesis and to reach your goals. Third, show clearly what will be the benefits for the farmers, for the companies, for the society as a whole.


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