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Does Florida's outdoor ASR research threaten soybeans?

Research on Asian soybean rust in north Florida is a little too close for comfort for Mississippi soybean producers and Mississippi State University Extension leaders, who believe an untimely storm could spread research spores into commercial production areas.

Scientists at the North Florida Research and Education Center in Quincy, which is northwest of Tallahassee in Gadsden County, say the research is necessary for developing methods to control the disease, and plan to continue their research.

The center began conducting soybean rust research after the disease entered the United States on the winds of Hurricane Ivan in 2004. In 2007, the Georgia/Florida Soybean Association expressed concern over the NFREC's release of rust spores into research fields for testing purposes.

The grower group believed spores from infected plants could potentially spread to commercial fields north of the testing site.

They were also concerned about spores being released in a county not officially listed as containing the disease on the ipmPIPE Web site, which tracks movement of the disease in the United States.

“To put it mildly, I was upset,” said Billy Wayne Sellers, president of the Georgia/Florida group. “With them putting the spores out in the field, a storm could come up the Florida Panhandle and bring it right on up into Georgia and Alabama. To me it was playing with fire.”

Sellers said the association also was not happy with year-round greenhouse testing at the facility. “You can do that, but there is still some chance that the rust could get out of the greenhouses and start an infestation.”

After a number of conference calls and meetings, NFREC started conducting research under a set of guidelines facilitated by the United Soybean Board in conjunction with Auburn University and the universities of Florida and Georgia, which allowed for field inoculation of research fields when rust is already present in a county or adjoining county. The presence includes infections on kudzu, coral bean and Florida beggarweed.

But not everyone in the scientific community agrees with the new guidelines. Trey Koger, Mississippi Extension soybean specialist, said the NFREC “has not presented sufficient evidence for comparing the potential reward from the research with the potential risk of infecting commercial soybean production areas of the United States.”

Currently, Mississippi soybean producers are working with Mississippi State University as well as other state agencies to restrict soybean rust research from being conducted in Mississippi. “Everybody understands the importance of research,” Koger said. “But our first line of defense in protecting our producers from this potentially catastrophic disease is to limit the overwintering potential of this pathogen in the Mid-South and all soybean producing regions of the United States.

“Rust essentially has to move in each summer from southern Florida, coastal regions of Louisiana, Texas, and Mexico. It concerns me that we are compromising all that good hard work to do research that we know nothing about.”

Jan De Regt, president of the Mississippi Soybean Association and a soybean producer from Hollandale, Miss., noted, “It's far enough away from here, but that doesn't mean it's a healthy situation. We don't know exactly what is going on or what type of research they do.

“Our concern is that it gets into the environment and spreads spores all over the South. It could also eventually cause problems for the Midwest. It's not just Mississippi, it's a national issue. We really need to get to the bottom of it.”

Billy Moore, retired Extension pathologist, said that under the guidelines adopted by the University of Florida for establishment of research tests, “if you find one pustule on kudzu in a county, you have the authority to carry on soybean rust and produce literally millions of spores.

The NFREC, added Moore, “is making a decision on its own that it is worth the risk of potentially costing farmers, who have nothing to say about what's happening.”

Moore says he would not have an objection if the rust research were in southern Florida, “where the rust pathogen overwinters annually and is along way from our production. But in Quincy, you're 20 miles from production fields.”

Jim Marois, who leads the rust research effort at NFREC, says the facility “has never had an outbreak that was identified as a product of our research. Prior to this year, we had a grower about three miles from the station who was growing about 300 acres of soybeans and we never saw any impact on those beans at all.

“Can you say the risk is absolutely zero? Of course not. But is the risk significant enough for there to be concern by our Florida growers? I don't think so.”

Marois added that Florida soybean producers regularly make at least one application of a fungicide for soybean disease each season.

After the center began conducting soybean rust research in 2005, “North Florida ended up being a hot spot for rust,” Marois said. “That's why a lot of the research that was going on in other parts of the world were transferred to this center, as well as a lot of new research that has started up in the last few years.”

Studies being conducted at NFREC focus on spreading characteristics of rust, development of resistant varieties and control measures, according to scientists there. Contract research is conducted on site by the universities of Iowa, Tennessee and Kentucky, Louisiana State University and others.

David Wright, Extension specialist, cropping systems and conservation tillage at NFREC, says about 20 acres of the center's 1,100 research acres are dedicated to soybean rust research. He says research is both necessary and safe.

“The disease in South America is completely different from what we have seen in this country,” Wright said. “This is not a break in the levee. It's just another management practice that we do to keep rust from being a major problem here in Florida and other parts of the country.

“All of our (Florida) growers have been pleased with the research and want to see it continue,” Wright said. “Some of them have had soybean rust, but in general, we've had very few production fields with any amount of soybean rust that would make an impact on yield.”

Sellers, whose farm was the first commercial operation in the United States to discover a rust infestation, says he is satisfied with changes NFREC has made in its research. “I have no complaints about Quincy. Once we pointed out our concerns, they got busy and made some changes. That's what we were asking for. We're going to keep working together, and if we have any problems down the road, we'll work them out. They're still doing their greenhouse testing, but they are willing to look at that each year and readjust if need be.”

Marois and Wright say anyone who wants to see their soybean rust research first hand is welcome to do so. “We will have a class Aug. 11-13 where we train scientists, farmers and others around the country on how to scout for rust. We show them everything that we do here and how we do it, so that they are trained not only in scouting but also in the biology and activities here.

“We also have a lot of visitors who stop by during the soybean growing season. That's fine. We go out of our way to try and accommodate them.”

Marois said that over half of the research on soybean rust presented at the American Phytopathological Society annual meeting in 2007 originated from NFREC. He said all the presentations are available on the American Phytopathological Society Web site.

“In the long run, the research coming out of here will not only help Florida growers, but should help growers from Mississippi and on up the country,” Wright said. “That's been our intent to start with, to be a resource and to gain information to help our growers. And we can manage it.”

But Moore and others say soybean rust is too dangerous to be exposed to the unpredictable nature of weather. “If there is no danger of what is going on down there in Quincy, why do we have all these sentinel plots which are planted early to capture a low level of inoculum?”

Koger noted that the research in Quincy “may provide information that will ultimately benefit our producers, but to this point we know very little about the research being conducted. We must take a conservative stance and be very concerned that the research they are conducting may have a potentially catastrophic impact on soybean producers in Mississippi, the Mid-South, and the entire United States.”

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