New threat to Brazil's breadbasket: a pesky caterpillar
Brazilian farmers are battling a voracious caterpillar that likely arrived from Asia, challenging the agricultural superpower's widely touted mastery of tropical farming just as it is on the verge of becoming the world's top soybean producer.
The caterpillar, a variety known as helicoverpa armigera that thrives in dry heat, was spotted for the first time in the Americas on cotton farms in drought-prone western Bahia in early 2012, fuelling panic among farmers who had no idea what it was.
The caterpillar was soon in soybean fields thousands of kilometers away thanks to the long-distance flying power of its moths, consuming everything from tomatoes to sorghum.
While crop losses have thus far been limited, Brazil is now on red alert over the nation's third major pest outbreak in 30 years. Officials have stepped up port controls, farmers are rethinking planting patterns and the hardest hit are blaming the government's cumbersome bureaucracy for not allowing the import of pesticides that have helped control the bug in other nations.
Most importantly, the caterpillar appears to be eating away at Brazil's proud claim to have conquered the craft of growing reliable crops in a tropical region where pests and disease can spread more quickly than for other major growers.
"When you find helicoverpa armigera you have to act immediately, while they are still small," said Rudelvi Bombarda, who farms 2,000 hectares (4,942 acres) with his brother in São Desidério, a dusty farming hub in western Bahia.
Bombarda found his first helicoverpa armigera in a bean plant. He knew by the way the fattened, worm-like creature had chewed its way inside the pod, beyond the reach of chemicals, that it was not one of Brazil's usual leaf-eating pests.
"If you wait and send it to a lab it will be too late," he said.
Bahia, one of Brazil's newest farming frontiers, lost 3 million tonnes of soy and cotton, nearly half of its usual grains production, between the caterpillar and the drought last year, according to the National Confederation of Agriculture. Still, Brazil produced an 81.5 million tonne soybean crop.
To be sure, the caterpillar has not reduced forecasts for an even larger soybean harvest that could dethrone the United States as the world's leading grower this year.
But it has provided a wake-up call on the risks of farming in the bug-ridden tropics, especially as more farmland is put into use. It also shows how Brazil's emergence as a major breadbasket has made it the fastest-growing market for biotechnology firms like Monsanto, which could benefit from the outbreak by selling its new caterpillar-resistant genetically modified soy and cotton seeds.
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