New threat to Brazil's breadbasket: a pesky caterpillar
'It Changed Everything'
The government's agricultural research agency Embrapa determined helicoverpa armigera was a new species in Brazil last February, a year after farmers in Bahia had noticed it was different from other pests and seemed immune to pesticides.
"No one was expecting a species like this," said Alexandre Specht, the researcher whose microscope identified the caterpillar at a laboratory outside Brasilia.
A small display case at the Embrapa Cerrados research center compares brown helicoverpa armigera moths with the nearly identical helicoverpa zea, already known in South America.
The government is still studying how helicoverpa armigera arrived in Brazil. In the absence of a conclusive explanation, rumors of a bioterrorist attack occasionally surface.
Most likely, the caterpillar arrived with cargo on a plane or ship from Asia, said Luis Rangel, director of the sanitation department at Brazil's agriculture ministry.
"With the intensification of this transit of goods it is natural that sooner or later one of these pests would show up," he said in an interview. "The Chinese bring in a lot of plants, it could have come in through this transit."
China is Brazil's No. 1 trade partner and buys most of its soybeans.
In response to the outbreak, the government has added organic material detectors in its main ports and airports, technology that Argentina and Chile already had, Rangel said. Further measures will be taken in conjunction with the national intelligence agency when the World Cup starts in June, he said.
Embrapa researchers said Brazil was also looking into building a pest-identification database at its main ports, like the helicoverpa armigera-free United States.
The government had hoped to beat a pest cycle that has plagued Brazil once each decade since it started large-scale commercial agriculture.
First there was the silverleaf whitefly in the 1990s, followed by soy rust fungus 10 years later, and both are still problems. Brazil was also the world's top cocoa producer until Witches' Broom disease devastated the industry in the 1990s.
The country's soy area expanded by some 40 percent in the past five years, meaning the helicoverpa armigera outbreak has had a more significant economic impact, Rangel said. The tendency of farmers to plant soy repeatedly instead of rotating crops has also made Brazil more vulnerable to pests, he said.
To prevent another outbreak, the government is promoting "integrated agriculture," which involves monitoring pests, rotating crops and seed varieties, and using biological controls and natural enemies, with chemicals as a last resort.