Tuesday, March 28, 2006

GAO criticizes USDA on Asian Soybean Rust

From GAO's report (.pdf) last month on USDA efforts to address Asian Soybean Rust (ASR), here is the good news:
USDA developed and implemented a framework—with federal and state agencies, land grant universities, and industry—that effectively focused national attention on ASR in 2005 and helped growers make informed fungicide decisions.

The framework was effective in several ways. For example, sentinel plots—about 2,500 square feet of soybeans or other host plants planted early in the growing season in the 31 soybean-producing states—provided early warning of ASR. Officials in 23 of 25 states GAO surveyed reported that this effort was effective. Researchers could also promptly identify and report on the incidence and severity of the disease on a USDA Web site, alerting officials and growers to ASR’s spread.
And here is the bad news:
Going forward, however, differences in how researchers monitor, test, and report on the disease could lead to incomplete or inaccurate data and detract from the value of future prediction models.

For example, models to forecast ASR’s spread partly rely on states’ observations of sentinel plots. USDA asked states to report results weekly, but updates ranged from 4 reports, in total, during the growing season in one state to 162 reports in another state. Inconsistencies also occurred in the designation and placement of plots and in the testing of samples for ASR. Further, changes to the successful management approach employed by USDA in 2005 raise questions about how the program will perform in 2006. For 2006, most operational responsibility for ASR will shift from USDA headquarters to a land grant university.

GAO is concerned that USDA’s lack of a detailed action plan describing how program responsibilities will be assumed and managed in 2006 could limit the effectiveness of ASR management for this year.