GAO Report Reveals Holes in Rust Preparedness

There is still time to resolve issues GAO found in investigation. Compiled by staff

Published on: May 23, 2005

A new General Accountability Office (GAO) study released Monday found shortcomings in the nation’s readiness to combat soybean rust. The Congressional investigative arm's report, Agriculture Production: USDA's Preparation for Asian Soybean Rust, found that the administration had made some progress in preparing to combat the disease, but there are areas to improve upon.

Specifically, USDA has taken important steps to establish a nationwide monitoring and surveillance system to track the spread of the disease, and USDA’s Risk Management Agency appears ready to cover losses from soybean rust for insured farmers. In addition, EPA has quickly approved state authority to allow the application of fungicides important to treating the disease.

Unfortunately however, the study also concluded that the administration falls short in several key areas, specifically:

Inadequate Monitoring Resources: The GAO survey found that many state agricultural officials felt they did not have adequate resources to monitor the spread of the disease by testing plant samples suspected of rust infection. This shortfall could allow soybean rust to spread undetected, worsening losses from the disease. GAO initially estimated it would require $5 million to track the spread of the disease. To date, USDA has only invested $1.2 million, diverted from other USDA activities.

Farmers Lack Information on Insurance: USDA’s Risk Management Agency (RMA) has indicated that losses from soybean rust will be covered if insured farmers use good farming practices. Unfortunately, GAO found many growers are confused by the vague guidance provided by RMA about how the Agency will determine what qualifies as good farming practices relating to soybean rust. Farmers do not know what they need to do to ensure they will be able to successfully file crop insurance claims if they experience losses from soybean rust.

Treatment Shortfalls: The GAO study found that a majority of soybean-producing states doubted there would be sufficient fungicide and application equipment to treat outbreaks of soybean rust. This could mean that many farmers will not be able to treat the disease early enough to prevent damage or reduce the spread of rust.

Time Remains to Fix Issues

Sen. Tom Harkin, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, asked for the GAO to evaluate government efforts to monitor and combat the spread of the disease last July. Harkin sent a letter to Ag Secretary Mike Johanns and the director of the Environmental Protection Agency to take swift action to ensure the agricultural community has the resources to fight this potentially costly disease.

"The administration cannot wait for potentially massive losses to soybean yields to materialize," Harkin says. "We have time to make the necessary improvements, and I call on the administration to act immediately to prepare for the possible spread of Asian soybean rust. Soybean crops in southern states are already approaching the growing stage where plants will be vulnerable to this disease."

Farm Bureau says USDA done well in minimizing huge yield losses

Asian soybean rust is a fungus that attacks soybeans (and related plant species), and can cause reduced yields by up to 80% if not treated with fungicides. The fungus spores are lightweight and can easily be carried by wind over great distances. In Brazil, soybean rust has cost an estimated $1.5 billion to $2.0 billion annually for control measures and in lost yields.

American Farm Bureau Federation public policy specialist Dana Brooks says that while the discovery of soybean rust causes farmers problems, the disease made landfall at the best possible time. Soybean rust arrived in the United States late in the growing season last year, first in the state of Louisiana, and then spreading to eight other states. A fall entrance gave American agriculture advance notice to have fungicides registered for the spring growing season.

With timely leadership from the Agriculture Department, a comprehensive system to prevent and control soybean rust was developed and fine-tuned. In addition, USDA now has a Web site devoted specifically to soybean rust identification and information.

Two House Agriculture subcommittees held a joint hearing last month to further determine the best method for dealing with soybean rust. And on May 12, Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns announced $1.2 million in funding for a soybean rust surveillance and monitoring network.

Farmers are being offered resources at a more local level, as well. Illinois, for example, has established an early warning system for soybean rust. The Illinois Farm Bureau, in a partnership with Grainger, is even offering magnifying glasses for soybean rust detection at a deep discount to members.

So far this season, only one instance of soybean rust has been found on soybean plants. Our early-warning system is proving effective again.

Brooks says USDA, the American Farm Bureau and other agriculture organizations are working hard to make sure sufficient fungicides are available to control soybean rust regardless of the circumstances.

AFBF says that some countries in Asia have lost as much as 70% of their soybean crop to soybean rust. But with the amount of preparation and persistence within the network of U.S. agriculture, it’s doubtful the United States will face anything close to that kind of loss, AFBF states.