Keeping watch for plant pests key for biosecurity

Agriculture Victoria scientists are keeping our state’s $3.2 billion agricultural sector safe from plant pests. Here’s how.  

Farmers throughout the Wimmera grain belt always have their hands full.

Along with managing the cycles and vagaries of nature, they also need to keep an eye out for the possibility of international plant pests, which may decimate crops.

Things like European wheat stem sawfly, Fusarium wilts in chickpea and canola and wheat spindle streak mosaic virus.

Admittedly, the names sound somewhat whimsical.

But the effect on our economy would be anything but if they made their presence felt.

Help, though, is at hand in the form of scientists in Horsham and Bundoora laboratories who are closely monitoring plant samples to protect our $3.2 billion agricultural ecosystem.

Their work has been going on for a while.

Since 2007, in fact, when the Victorian Government launched its $195,000 per annum CropSafe surveillance system of Victoria’s grain belt.

Luise SiegelWhat’s smart about the CropSafe program is its collaboration with industry; it has amassed a network of over 200 experienced agronomists (about 85 per cent of Victoria's agronomists) and agribusinesses who are all involved in inspecting grain, cereal and pulse crops, looking for irregularities.

That “all in” approach is needed as although exotic pests and diseases are not yet found in Australia, if they do gain entry, they’ll pose a significant threat to Victoria's cropping sectors, warns Agriculture Victoria’s Luise Fanning, based in Horsham.

“Preventing exotic pests and diseases from gaining a foothold, and quickly identifying and eradicating localised outbreaks, is critical to protecting these $3.2 billion per annum industries,” she cautions. “While the risk of significant exotic plant pest incursions continues to climb with increased international travel and movement of plant materials and farm products, a reassuring blanket of biosecurity covers the Victorian grains industry.”

The most recent outbreak where CropSafe helped was the 2016 Russian wheat aphid, which jumped the border from South Australia into the Victorian Wimmera, infesting wheat crops.

While no exotic outbreaks have been reported since, this is not a time for complacency.

“The agronomists in the network continue their vigilance, submitting suspect samples helping, for instance, to ensure that Fall armyworm had not made its way into Victoria from New South Wales.”

That’s a big deal given Fall armyworm has savaged cotton, corn, rice, peanuts, apples and orange crops in North America’s southern states.

How does CropSafe sample testing work?

CropSafe laboratories in Horsham receive up to 150 plant samples each season for analysis by the CropSafe pathologist. Results are usually available in a fortnight, sometimes even the same day, depending on the symptoms on the plants. Any samples requiring further analysis are sent on to the Bundoora team of diagnostic technicians, bacteriologists, virologists and entomologists.

Individual agronomists are emailed test results and the whole network receives updates via email, Twitter, Facebook and live-streaming on disease occurrence and trends so they can choose how to treat their crops (for instance, whether to spray or not to spray).

Intriguingly, although digitalisation of agriculture is emerging in everything from drones to off-site computerised irrigation, low-fi analysis is delivering results in this instance.

“CropSafe is successful due to the ‘low tech’ classical methods applied in the Horsham lab to triage samples and perform diagnostics,” explains Luise, “and this is then supported by the Melbourne lab that has state-of-the-art facilities that can carry out advanced screening of plant samples.”

Fighting the good fight

International Year of Plant Health 2020Did you know that 2020 is the International Year of Plant Health?

Spearheaded by the United Nations, the initiative is boosting awareness globally about how protecting plant health can help end hunger, cut poverty, protect the environment and ramp up economic development.