I met Frederik for coffee at global headquarters in Limburgerhof, Germany.
Checking in on soybean diseases in the Brazilian Cerrado
Frederik is smartly dressed with single-color tie and horn-rimmed glasses. He looks every part the chemist. Frederik just returned from Brazil where he visited soybean field trials. His experiences were so interesting that I wanted to share them: "The first thing you notice about the Cerrado is the vastness of the soybean fields. They just stretch all the way to the horizon. This sense of expansiveness is accentuated by the fact that the location around Cristalina sits atop a plateau at high altitude. The weather was agreeable, for sure, but dry too. Savannah grasslands usually are not optimal places to grow soybeans. But the so-called "miracle of the cerrado", which involved a massive effort to improve soil quality and adopt seed varieties, changed all that.
The farming operations there are now extremely technified. They have all the tools that a modern farming operation needs. But plant diseases are threatening their harvest. That's where I come in. Asian Soybean Rust has been a problem for a while now. Now in Cristalina, they are also seeing serious infestations of white mold (scelrotinia sclerotiorum). For me, it was the first time I had actually seen white mold in person. It attacks the stem, and soon the entire plant shrivels up and dies.
The assessment part is quite easy. You just have to look at the canopy for dried out plants. Addressing the problem, however, is quite challenging. Once white mold appears in a soybean population, it's pretty difficult to eradicate it. Moreover, the reproductive bodies (called sclerotia) can survive several years and can be transported from one field to the next by agricultural machinery. Farmers are now really asking for additional solutions to overcome this threat to their harvest.
Unfortunately, these types of infestations are very difficult to replicate in a greenhouse. That's why we have to combine our laboratory work with field research. Our colleagues on the ground have to figure out what spray programs work best. We were there to visit with Marlon, the field technician managing the trials, and his team. He had a couple of new ideas for different product mixtures and spray programs that seemed to be working quite well.
It's amazing how much work it takes to conduct field research. Currently, Marlon is running 80 trials in parallel (50 trials in Rio Verde, 75 trials in Uberlândia). Over the course of a year, he manages about 120 field trials. What's more, just to visit this particular field in Cristalina requires a 3.5 hour drive one way. He doesn't mind the trip, he told me. What really counts is just being able to chat with the farmers and help them address some pretty serious challenge.
I'm completely convinced that plant disease, especially more recent diseases like white mold and corynespora will continue to spread throughout the Cerrado. Our job is to keep in contact with the growers and field technicians to ensure that they have the best solutions for controlling these outbreaks. Soybean production in the cerrado is truly stunning and we are doing our best to develop additional tools and solutions for the farmers out there."