Compared to North America, the countries of Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay are seen as having the advantages of growing multiple seasons of soybeans. Several regions in those countries have the luxury of growing two crops per year or more because of hotter weather.
But that may the exact same thing that threatens South America's soybean growing potential in the future, agronomists say.
In 2003, Brazil produced 52 million tons of soybeans. In 2014, the production of the oilseed jumped to 87.5 million tons, while the total South American output would be 159.6 million tons. The growth in 18 years was of 329%. The region is expected to have a production as high as 217.8 million tons by 2023. However, recent developments about crop health issues raise questions about these future capabilities.
Fewer soybeans ahead?
A warning was made recently by Argentine agronomist Alberto Bianchi, a former DuPont researcher. He told local media outlets that "soybeans will no longer be an easy crop to grow." Bianchi partly blames the chemical industries for the problem: There is a lack of new products that can combat weeds tolerant to glyphosate. This phenomena is already occurring in the U.S.
"Nowadays, growing soybeans is already harder than in the past and it may become worse. The weeds are coming more and more because of a repeated use of the same products. The chemical industry has not launched a product with a different mode of action," said the now independent consultant.
Most agronomists agree that the problem is real, but they do not blame the chemical industry. Researcher Marcelo Lopes da Silva, from the Brazilian Agricultural Research Company (Embrapa), admits that the production system in the Cerrado, in Brazil's center-west, will increase vulnerabilities because of some of the current agricultural practices.
"There is an intensive use of the same crops in the same space and time, which feeds plagues. Climate conditions help the population growth of pests. And a third reason is a not very rational use of chemical products or spraying with no evaluation of the level of plagues," explained Silva in an interview with Successful Farming. Silva reveals that Embrapa makes a major effort in order to better orient farmers to use insecticides more rationally.
The most common pests and diseases that affect soybeans in Brazil are the caterpillar Helicoverpa armigera, known also as corn earworm, and Asian Rust, more commonly in the Cerrado. Both generated over US$ 2 billion of annual losses to Brazilian farmers in different years. But the caterpillar has been more scary because the first appearance was reported at the end of 2012, and its proliferation is very fast in the tropical weather.
According to Cecília Czepak, a researcher from the Federal University of Goiás and a recognized name regarding the earworm issue, says that Brazilian farmers and South Americans in general should "change habits soon" or darker days will come. "Helicoverpa will still cause a lot of trouble. I traveled throughout many Brazilian states, and the situation is always the same. Intensive crops, abandoned racoons, and insecticide applications without targets," she said.
Czepak also explains that there are problems identifying caterpillars, and she criticizes the flaunting by research teams of the use of biological control as the best form of control. "The caterpillar adapts easily to adverse conditions. It is copulating with native species of South America [...] If we still have a wrong vision about the current technologies available, the situation will worsen," she summarized.
In a May summit of no-tillage farmers in Gramado, Rio Grande do Sul, Fabiano Siqueri, an agronomist from the MT Foundation of Mato Grosso, said that the odds are very high that soybean rust will come back in 2014/2014 and will damage significantly the second soybean crop.
"Farmers should get rid of older products. The odds are higher because El Niño is expected to come earlier this year. I think it would reach from 1.2 million acres to 1.7 million acres in Mato Grosso," predicted Siqueri.
At the same event, the professor emeritus of the University of Passo Fundo, Elmar Luiz Floss, said that farmers are very conservative about using new technologies for soybeans, and they don't easily learn integrated management of soils. According to Floss, the problem is not exclusive to Brazil's Cerrado, but it happens more frequently in the South of the country.
"Farmers that stay in Rio Grande do Sul and Paraná (and did not got to the center-west) are the most reluctant to buy new technologies. When they do, they don't use it very well and blame the salesperson of agrochemicals. It's all about uniform germination – preventive application of bioregulators and irrigation help. They should get the best cultivars and not save on it," said Floss.