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Close-up of a screwworm larva. Link to photo information
When this unwelcome, flesh-eating "tourist"—the screwworm— turned up in Aruba, ARS helped deport the pest.Click the image for more information about it.

Quelling Trade "Brush Fires" With Science

By Jim De Quattro
May 17, 2006

What do Algeria, Aruba, Brazil, Canada, China, Cuba, Romania and Vietnam have in common?

Lisa Castlebury examines digital image of Epicoccum, a commonly encountered Karnal bunt look-alike. Link to photo information
Algeria stopped a ship from unloading U.S.-grown wheat because it was believed tainted with a devastating wheat fungus. But ARS mycologist Lisa Castlebury proved the culprit was a harmless lookalike, shown here on the computer screen. Click the image for more information about it.

All of them have been at the center of a scientific question with trade or other burning international implications for themselves or the United States. And all the questions were resolved through work of the Agricultural Research Service.

While the questions varied, time was always of the essence in settling the situations, according to an article in the May issue of the agency's Agricultural Research magazine.

In 2000, for example, Brazil banned U.S. wheat imports because of fears of the wheat seed gall nematode. That was serious business, because Brazil is the largest buyer of U.S. wheat in South America. But the ban was lifted in early 2001 after ARS researchers proved to the Brazilians' satisfaction that the nematodes were not a threat.

According to ARS nematologist David Chitwood, the Brazilians came to ARS because the agency has the most expertise in identifying nematodes and, as a nonregulatory science agency, has nothing at stake in a trade issue.

Among a half-dozen other episodes of quick-acting international research in recent years, the magazine cites:

  • In March 2004, Aruba had an outbreak of screwworm, a painful parasite that can infest almost any warm-blooded animal--from livestock to tourists. But by October, ARS' sterile-insect-release technology had eliminated screwworms from the small Caribbean island—just as it had worked earlier with international cooperators to eliminate the pest from the United States, Mexico and almost every country in Central America.
  • In 2002, China notified the World Trade Organization about new tests for gauging the quality of cotton fiber imports. But ARS analyses of the tests persuaded Chinese officials not only to postpone use of the new tests, but also to move toward modernizing that nation's cotton classification system.

ARS is the chief scientific research agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.