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Imported soybeans bring Asian Rust worries

(Wednesday, Dec. 31, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Mike McGinnis, DTN: DES MOINES -- Imports of whole soybeans into the U.S. may have started already , as domestic supplies continue to dwindle to the point that running out is becoming a concern. At the same time, the risk of importing the Asian Soybean Rust fungus runs high, said one plant pathologist.

At least one shipment of soybeans reportedly could have been brought into the Houston, Texas, port recently, according to a USDA official. The amount of soybeans imported, the company buying the soybeans and where the soybeans came from was not reported.

The U.S. short crop would serve as a catalyst for soybean imports.

WASDE (World Agricultural Supply/Demand Estimates) in December estimated that the U.S. could import as much as 223,000 metric tons in 2003/2004, lower than the 1996/97 import level of 242,000 metric tons.

In the 1996/1997 short crop year, soybeans were brought in from Brazil.

Dwain Ford, president of the American Soybean Association, said the U.S. realistically has few choices to pick from when importing soybeans. The two choices are Argentina and Brazil.

"These choices are unfortunate ones because both countries have the soybean rust fungus the U.S. farmer is trying to avoid," said Ford.

Meanwhile, Ford confirmed that the ASA and USDA have been discussing possible new rules for soybean imports in an effort to keep the soybean rust fungus out of the U.S.

USDA wants to publish the proposed rules by February 2004, possibly before a January 2004 soybean rust meeting in St. Louis, according to a Sparks Companies report.

The wind-borne fungus attaches to the leaves of soybean plants and reproduces rapidly, preventing proper plant development and dramatically reduces crop yields if not treated.

Michael McNeill, plant pathologist with Ag Advisory, LTD, said because soybeans are generally not cleaned before being shipped, the U.S. is running a serious risk when importing.

The Sparks report indicated the possible details include a quarantine (for a designated period of time) of any Brazilian soybeans and/or a heat- treatment on such soybeans.

McNeill said the risk of importing soy rust is reduced if the soybeans are heat-treated before shipment.

"The soy rust spore is relatively easily killed, cleaning or heat- treatment would both lower the risk of importing soy rust. These processes would prove to be very expensive," said McNeill.

Because of the short supply of U.S. soybeans, the ASA is concerned about the possibility of Brazilian soybean imports.

"There is a good probability we will run out of soybeans before the next crop," said Ford. "Heat treatment will kill soy rust in soymeal. But with talk of bringing in real soybeans, a larger concern prevails."

Ford added, "There isn't enough data to show that spores won't survive the shipment. So, we have been discussing with USDA the rules of importation."

Research indicates it's not 100% guaranteed the soy rust spores would be found when the shipments are checked at the Brazil port.

"We know the soy rust disease is going to get here," said Ford. "We just want to avoid getting it as long as possible. Bringing soy rust in from imported soybeans is certainly not how we want to get this fungus."

Ford said the USDA rules should be based around the testing of shipments.

"It's going to be difficult to have Animal Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) in Brazil during shipping," said Ford. "However, after Brazil not telling the truth about their planting of biotech soybeans, do we feel confident enough in them to test the shipments for soy rust?"

McNeill was quick to point out that current laws allow foreign soybean shipments to include 3-4% of foreign material .

"You can bet spores could be in that 3-4%. It only takes one spore to spread. If we start bringing in beans from infected countries, we are going to get caught, simple as that," said McNeill.

Meanwhile, Ford suggested the soybean shipments would be imported into the New Orleans port, after the operators in Wilmington, North Carolina, said they wouldn't import whole soybeans.

"Regarding the rules, there is a lot to be worked out between exporters/importers," said Ford.

APHIS would have to follow some strict WTO rules when considering the import rules regarding what types of risks there might be with soy rust.

"The economic risk to the U.S. soybean industry could be quite large. However, the risk of getting soy rust from a shipment of soybeans may not be as big. This is what APHIS would have to weigh," said the USDA official.