Agriculture Production:

USDA Needs to Build on 2005 Experience to Minimize the Effects of Asian Soybean Rust in the Future

GAO-06-337: Published: Feb 24, 2006. Publicly Released: Mar 21, 2006.

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In 2005, U.S. agriculture faced potentially devastating losses from Asian Soybean Rust (ASR), a fungal disease that spreads airborne spores. Fungicides approved by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) can protect against ASR. In 2005, growers in 31 states planted about 72.2 million soybean acres worth about $17 billion. While favorable weather conditions limited losses due to ASR, it still threatens the soybean industry. In May 2005, GAO described the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) efforts to prepare for ASR's entry, (Agriculture Production: USDA's Preparation for Asian Soybean Rust, GAO-05-668R). This report examines (1) USDA's strategy to minimize ASR's effects in 2005 and the lessons learned to improve future efforts and (2) USDA, EPA, and others' efforts to develop, test, and license fungicides for ASR and to identify and breed soybeans that tolerate it.

USDA developed and implemented a framework--with federal and state agencies, land grant universities, and industry--that effectively focused national attention on ASR in 2005 and helped growers make informed fungicide decisions. The framework was effective in several ways. For example, sentinel plots--about 2,500 square feet of soybeans or other host plants planted early in the growing season in the 31 soybean-producing states--provided early warning of ASR. Officials in 23 of 25 states GAO surveyed reported that this effort was effective. Researchers could also promptly identify and report on the incidence and severity of the disease on a USDA Web site, alerting officials and growers to ASR's spread. Going forward, however, differences in how researchers monitor, test, and report on the disease could lead to incomplete or inaccurate data and detract from the value of future prediction models. For example, models to forecast ASR's spread partly rely on states' observations of sentinel plots. USDA asked states to report results weekly, but updates ranged from 4 reports, in total, during the growing season in one state to 162 reports in another state. Inconsistencies also occurred in the designation and placement of plots and in the testing of samples for ASR. Further, changes to the successful management approach employed by USDA in 2005 raise questions about how the program will perform in 2006. For 2006, most operational responsibility for ASR will shift from USDA headquarters to a land grant university. GAO is concerned that USDA's lack of a detailed action plan describing how program responsibilities will be assumed and managed in 2006 could limit the effectiveness of ASR management for this year. EPA, USDA, and others increased the number of fungicides growers can use to combat ASR while efforts continue to develop ASR-tolerant soybeans. As of December 2005, EPA had approved 20 fungicides for treating ASR on soybeans, including 12 that had emergency exemptions. According to officials in the nine states where ASR was confirmed in 2005, growers had access to fungicides. USDA, universities, and private companies are also developing ASR-tolerant soybeans and have identified 800 possible lines of resistant soybeans, out of a total of 16,000 lines. USDA estimates it may take 5 to 9 years to develop commercially available ASR-tolerant soybeans.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2006, USDA facilitated numerous discussions with partners interested in continuing with its coordinated framework for focusing national attention on Asian soybean rust--the framework included a surveillance and monitoring network, a web-based information management system, criteria for deciding when to apply fungicides, and predictive modeling and outreach. USDA also funded 379 sentinel plots that were strategically placed based on the guidance of soybean pathology experts. Finally, to ensure the accurate and timely confirmation of soybean rust, USDA used the National Plant Diagnostic Network to encourage the diagnostic testing of plants suspected to be infected with soybean rust.

    Recommendation: To ensure reliable, quality reporting on the spread of the disease, USDA should provide additional guidance to state ASR program managers and monitors on the timing and frequency of reporting on the incidence of ASR, the designation of sentinel plots, and when to use advanced diagnostic testing.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In fiscal year 2006, we reviewed and reported on USDA's preparation for Asian Soybean Rust (ASR). We reported, among other things, that a clear plan of action and strong leadership in coordinating the actions of all stakeholders was important in 2005 and would continue to be critical to the success of efforts to monitor, report, and manage the spread of ASR in 2006. We recommended that USDA develop a detailed action plan, prior to the beginning of the growing season, describing how it would manage ASR in 2006. USDA developed a plan, which it titled "A Coordinated Framework for Soybean Rust and Aphid Surveillance, Reporting, Prediction, Management and Outreach." According to USDA, the plan served as a living document through the beginning of the 2006, until its last revision was made on May 1, 2006. USDA stated that the planning recommendation made by GAO paid great dividends. The plan was used as a springboard for the Pest Information Platform for Extension and Education--a national system that provides centralized information to pest management practitioners. Although the system has been expanded from soybean rust and soybean aphid detection to include other crops, soybean rust remains the system's top priority.

    Recommendation: To ensure that ASR continues to receive national priority and the same level of effective coordination and cooperation evidenced in 2005, USDA should develop a detailed action plan, prior to the beginning of the growing season, describing how it will manage ASR in 2006.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture


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