Agriculture Production:

USDA's Preparation for Asian Soybean Rust

GAO-05-668R: Published: May 17, 2005. Publicly Released: May 20, 2005.

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Robert A. Robinson
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Office of Public Affairs
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In November 2004, Asian Soybean Rust (ASR) was discovered in the United States in Louisiana. In the following weeks, it was found in eight additional southern states. ASR is a harmful fungal disease that has spread throughout many other parts of the world, including Asia, Australia, Africa, and South America. ASR can infect over 90 host plant species, including legumes, such as dry beans, peas, and kudzu, a plant that grows wild primarily in the southern United States. Although the disease has caused significant soybean crop loss and increased production costs in many other countries, ASR arrived in the United States too late in the crop year to have any effect on soybean production in 2004, and scientists were uncertain about how it would survive the winter climates in the United States. However, in February 2005, researchers found that ASR had successfully over-wintered on kudzu in Florida, and it was subsequently detected in Georgia on soybean plants in April 2005. Since environmental factors, such as rainfall, humidity, and temperature, affect both the severity and incidence of ASR, scientists do not know how widespread or damaging the disease will be in the United States during the 2005 crop year. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is responsible for monitoring and addressing the problems posed by ASR. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is responsible for licensing fungicides to treat the disease. Congress asked us to determine (1) USDA's efforts to develop and implement an ASR surveillance strategy to identify and protect against ASR's entry into the United States and to test and verify suspect cases; (2) USDA's strategy for minimizing the effects of ASR now that the fungus has arrived in the United States; and (3) the progress that USDA, EPA, and others have made in developing, testing, and licensing fungicides to treat ASR and in identifying and breeding ASR-resistant or -tolerant soybeans.

In May 2002, after ASR was identified in Brazil, USDA began planning for the introduction of ASR into the continental United States. Three USDA agencies--the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), the Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service (CSREES), and the Agricultural Research Service (ARS)--the National Plant Board, industry, and several land-grant universities formed an ad hoc Soybean Rust Committee. At about the same time, USDA established the National Plant Diagnostic Network to enable diagnosticians, state regulatory personnel, and first detectors to communicate information, images, and methods of detection for ASR and other diseases in a timely manner. In the fall of 2002, USDA began disseminating information and conducting training courses in an effort to educate growers about how to identify and manage the disease. In January 2004, APHIS issued a strategic plan that provided information on the protection, detection, response, and recovery from ASR. While generally comprehensive in its coverage of issues, the plan was not fully developed when ASR was first identified in the United States. Since the initial discovery of ASR in the continental United States, USDA and others have increased efforts to inform growers about how to identify and minimize the effects of the disease. In April 2005, USDA issued A Coordinated Framework for Soybean Rust Surveillance, Reporting, Prediction, Management and Outreach. The framework includes a surveillance and monitoring network, a Web-based information management system, decision criteria for fungicide application, predictive modeling, and outreach efforts. We surveyed 31 soybean-producing states to obtain information about their efforts, in coordination with USDA, to prepare for and manage ASR. The states generally responded positively when discussing efforts to educate growers and others on ASR and in setting up sentinel plot monitoring programs. (Sentinel plots will be planted earlier than commercial plants to alert growers if ASR is present in their region.) However, some of the states reported that their diagnostic laboratories may have insufficient funding and/or staff to test suspected samples for ASR. In addition, most states indicated that they were either uncertain or did not believe they would have enough equipment available to apply fungicides to treat the disease. The American Soybean Association, representing many of the nation's largest soybean growers, has also expressed concerns about whether growers will have access to equipment as well as fungicides in a timely manner. Finally, USDA's Risk Management Agency has recently developed additional guidance on the actions growers must take to ensure that any losses due to ASR are covered under their insurance policies. However, growers have expressed concerns about what they need to do to demonstrate good farming practices in treating ASR and the documentation they must provide to demonstrate that they followed such practices. Further guidance may be needed because of the uncertainties associated in dealing with the disease. USDA, EPA, and others have made significant progress in developing, testing, and licensing fungicides to treat ASR. As of April 2005, eight fungicides were registered with EPA for treating ASR. In addition, EPA had approved emergency exemptions for an additional 11 fungicides to treat ASR under section 18 of the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act. As of April 2005, 32 states had applied for and been granted section 18 exemptions that are effective through November 10, 2007. USDA estimates that researchers are 5 to 9 years away from identifying or breeding ASR-resistant or -tolerant soybeans. In addition, on March 10, 2005, USDA removed ASR from the list of select agents and toxins, which removed certain restrictions and will aid ongoing research on the disease in the United States.

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