November 6, 2008

Scarce US funds may imperil soybean rust tracking system in 2009


Although Asian soybean rust infections have spread steadily since first being found in the continental US in 2004, gathering data about the dreaded disease will become difficult, if not impossible, in 2009 as federal funding for tracking movements of the air-borne plant pathogen runs out.


"We will not know the status of several possible (funding) options until at least Dec. 15," said University of Mississippi extension plant pathologist Tom Allen. "We will more than likely be without a dime for 2009."


A rust monitoring system, officially known as the Integrated Pest Management Pest Information Platform for Extension and Education, known as ipmPIPE, was developed in 2004 between agencies at the US Department of Agriculture and the US soy industry. It includes surveillance and monitoring network, predictive modelling, and an internet-based information distribution system.


The system costs about US$3 million to run annually. Nearly a third of that cost has been borne by the US soybean industry and various land-grant universities, with the USDA's Risk Management Agency providing more than US$2 million in funding to the program in each of the last three years.


"However, as a result of adjustments to appropriated funding for RMA's research projects effective for the 2008 fiscal year, the ipmPIPE will lose funding for its operational budget beginning Jan. 1, 2009," the ipmPIPE Steering Committee said.


As a result, the American Soybean Association has requested help from Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer in funding the early warning system for 2009.


"We regret that the broken congressional appropriations process leaves us with no option but to seek USDA funding for this critical program," said ASA president John Hoffman, a soybean producer from Waterloo, Iowa. "While losses due to rust have not been severe, growing conditions in the last several years have been atypical, mainly due to drought in Southern and Southeastern states, which inhibits the spread of rust."


Soybean rust flourishes in mild, damp overcast conditions, spreading its spores on the wind.


With 15 new infections described in four southern states this week, the disease has now been found in 337 US counties across 16 states, compared with 266 counties in 19 states, as of early November 2007.


ASA said development of the Web-based rust-reporting system has greatly enhanced the ability of farmers to manage risk and avoid unnecessary fungicide applications, which are currently the only means of controlling the fast-acting soybean killer.


With the disease never cited for actually causing more than minor yield losses, surveys conducted by land-grant universities and the USDA's Economic Research Service estimate that effective rust management saved US soy growers US$299 million in 2005, US$299 million in 2006 and another US$209 million in 2007.

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