The future of soybean rust in the U.S. may be better understood by the Brazilian view of tomorrow.
Rust, say the experts, is here to stay. Asian soybean rust arrived on the wind and spread across 80% of Brazil's soybean growing area, often devastating yields. Taking a ride on freak El Niño currents, it caught producers off guard and unprepared. After seeing the effects of uncontrolled fungus attacks on their fields, farmers in Brazil are ready. And that may have contributed — along with weather — to less of a rust problem this year.
But what about next year? The next five years? Brazil's federal agriculture research agency, Embrapa, says producers are in for a future of coexistence with — not eradication of — rust, through a combination of new cultivars, preventive spraying and proactive control once the fungus is identified in a field.
At least one farmer in Mato Grosso takes a more optimistic view of the future. “I believe rust can be beat,” says Jorge Borghetti, who farms 5,000 acres of soybeans (and serves as the township's top agricultural official) in one of the worst-hit parts of the state. “I've been in this business for decades and I've seen so-called unbeatable problems basically solved, such as cyst nematode. The Mato Grosso Foundation, Embrapa and others are researching it, and I have high hopes they'll come up with a rust-resistant variety.”
His township, Primavera do Leste, was the hardest hit by rust in the state, as this season's yields plummeted to less than 30 bu./acre, mostly due to rust.
Skeptic or optimist, there is no doubt rust will remain high on Brazilian agriculture's priority list. Mato Grosso Governor Blairo Maggi, for example, just announced he will seek a meeting of soybean-state governors to develop a strategy against the problem. And Agriculture Minister Roberto Rodrigues suggested the government might cut taxes on fungicides in order to soften the blow for farmers.
Outside the laboratory and off the farm, those may be the only practical steps that can be taken against the effects of rust. Developing new compounds and coming up with genetic resistance take time. So in the short term, look for Brazilian farmers to deal with rust with some more down-to-earth steps.
Over the next few growing seasons, rust combat will likely mean up to two preventative fungicide applications and lots of field scouting. Many soybean producers in Brazil already factor fungicide costs into their coming-year planning, and some order early.
Early identification of rust in the field can mean a big difference, and will likely continue to make that difference for a while. And even if (and when) tolerant or resistant varieties are introduced — or that new rust-erasing active ingredient is found — scouting and early identification of rust may well remain a part of Brazil's farming future.
The future starts today. In fact, work on making rust's future less noticeable in the world of soybean production began long ago. African researchers have been on the case for years. And now researchers from around the world, including places like Japan, are working on the case.
Over the long run, some researchers put more faith in the development of new and better rust products, and others, like Borghetti, are betting on genetics. Either way, tomorrow's solution begins in the lab.
Breeders at Brazil's Mato Grosso Foundation have been working away at developing a “stainless steel” variety of soybeans that would be resistant to rust. While the foundation's researchers are tight-lipped about the varieties used to cross for rust resistance, we do know that despite early confidence initial tests showed there was more work to do.
On the biotech side of the equation, Monsanto says it has already found four genes that could serve as rust inhibitors in soybeans. In approximately five to seven years, the company could introduce varieties with tolerance or resistance.
Still, predicting the future of rust may be a bit like forecasting the weather. For one thing we just don't know enough about it. As one researcher said: “Rust is unpredictable.” We do know that so far efforts to develop tolerant or resistant varieties have not yet borne fruit, and that the preventative and curative chemicals available are likely to help protect producers. However, once rust shows up, producers are virtually guaranteed to see losses.
In the end, Mato Grosso farmers' association official Rubens Denardi may have the right outlook. “Rust is an economic problem,” he says. “An added cost that you must take into account, and that's the end of that.”