Brazilian soybean growers and manufacturers lost $2 billion to Asian soybean rust last year, according to the Brazil's Agriculture Ministry. The agency reported $ 1.2 billion in direct losses from devastated crops and another $800 million to costs associated with controlling the disease.
On the other hand, drought in many producing regions, while keeping production below what was expected, also limited the spread of rust, reducing the disease's effects on farmers' income.
In the current season, rust has already been found in 250 different locations around the country. This is roughly the average for this late in the season, and all outbreak points have already been isolated and the crops destroyed, so the disease won't spread. All the areas surrounding the affected crops were also sprayed for rust.
For now, farmers are calm. The losses of destroyed crops were minimal compared to what the disease, if left untreated, could do.
The weather, however, is causing many Brazilian agronomists to have sleepless nights. This season is looking far wetter than the previous season, and there is a consensus among specialists that this is behind the outbreaks. With strong winds associated with rains, which is common in most producing areas in the country, the spores cannot only live longer, but also spread farther.
“Weather conditions are normal for rust development, although not conducive to an explosive dissemination. Rains are sparse, but there is plenty of dew as late as 9 a.m., which helps the fungus to stick to the plant,” says Edson Borges, from MS Foundation, a private sector research institution that studies rust. “We're training farmers to deal with and control the disease when necessary,” he adds.
In (the state of) Paraná, the second biggest soybean producing state in Brazil, 64 regions have already been affected by rust. “Rains in the north favor the development of rust in the area, so that's why it is imperative to check closely for rust during crop scouting,” said Ademir Henning, a researcher in Embrapa (the official Brazilian agriculture research company).
In order to prepare farmers for a possible large outbreak, the Brazilian government has approved a $90 million low interest credit line for controlling rust in west central Brazil, a region that accounts for more than 50 percent of national soybean production. The funding will finance emergency fungicide purchases for farmers who have found rust in their crops. The money should also be used to fund scouting and research in the field against rust.
The credit line is limited to $63,000 per farmer, the average cost to spray fungicides over a 1,000 hectares (2,471 acres) area. Farmers will have until Feb. 28 to withdraw the money. The interest rates will be 6 percent per year for small farmers, 8.75 percent per year for medium-size producers, and 10.75 percent for big farmers.
This credit line is welcomed by farmers as a hedge against rust, although it is not likely they'll have to use the money. The ghost of the devastating rust outbreak in the 2001-02 season is still very fresh in their minds. Then, farmers were unaware of the destructive power of the disease and the lack of reliable products and the direct losses to Asian soybean rust were $5 billion.
“Rust is still an issue that concerns most soybean growers, me included,” says a farmer from Mato Grosso, Brazil's biggest soybean producing state. “Therefore, this new credit line is one more bullet in our anti-rust gun. There sure is more to be done, and we must continue to rely on scouting, but this is indeed a relief.”
Jose Sergio Osse is a Brazilian agricultural journalist and owns a public relations firm in Sao Paulo. He has worked as a press advisor for Syngenta, Brazil, and as an agricultural reporter for the country's major newspaper.