Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Biosecurity under the microscope in South-East Asia

The marvels of modern technology are enabling border inspectors, scientists and farmers in South-East Asia to consult live with experts across the world and identify serious plant pests...

Lao PDRs’ and Cambodia’s plant biosecurity system is very limited, largely due to lack of local expertise, equipment and communication networks. A strong capability in research and diagnostics is a crucial part of protecting agricultural industries from damaging pests, managing borders against pest incursions, and meeting requirements for trade.

Identifying incoming pests and diseases is essential for biosecurity
(image: G. Kong)

Several ACIAR projects are improving this situation, through building individual and organisational capacity to identify and manage plant health issues in Laos, Cambodia and Thailand. The first project has just finished in Thailand, with the major achievement of establishing a diagnostic laboratory in Bangkok capable of using molecular biology and remote microscopy to identify serious plant pests. Along the way, researchers have identified several new diseases/hosts and developed new protocols to identify serious plant pests, including fruit flies, citrus canker and potato spindle tuber virus.

‘Remote diagnostics’ - How does it work?
Remote diagnostics allows people to share and access information across the world in real time, using remote microscope equipment and web collaboration tools such as Skype. Border inspectors and scientists can capture microscope images of an organism in question and consult live with Australian (or international) experts in plant pests and diseases to identify it.


From microscope to expert advice, thanks to the internet (image: G. Kong)
With new advances in technology, researchers or farmers can even use mobile devices such as wireless microscopes, with phone apps that upload images and return information to the network from out in the field. Pest information can be stored and shared, and the network’s experts can be consulted to identify a pest or provide further advice on what to do next.

Farmers can identify and manage pests in their field through the use of remote microscopes
and mobile phones (image: G. Kong)
Building on success
New work is building on the first project’s success, since Thailand is now capable of offering plant biosecurity services to neighbouring countries. Being ahead in the game, Thailand will be used as a base for training scientists and technicians in Laos and Cambodia.  The capability of the diagnostic lab in Bangkok will be enhanced, to improve Thailand’s own diagnostics and act as a terrific resource for Laos and Cambodia.

The aim is to create a network of remote microscopy centres across the three countries and so strengthen regional biosecurity capacity. The microscopy and associated IT equipment has been installed in all three countries, and local scientists and technicians have been trained in its use. Building up the research capacity has been a real highlight of this work. Training courses on taxonomy and biosecurity research tools such as molecular biology (to confirm pest identifications) have been held in Laos, Cambodia and Thailand, and more will be run in the near future.

On-screen diagnosis in action
(image: G. Kong)

Australia is providing an invaluable online database of plant pests and diseases (Plant and Disease Image Library, PaDIL), so that information about regionally important pests can be shared. Most importantly, the communications network being set up through these projects will allow pest and disease identifications to be made faster and with more confidence.

Award-winning progress
This work led by Dr Gary Kong of the Plant Biosecurity Cooperative Research Centre is award-winning. The team has won an Excellence in Innovation award from the CRC Association of Australia, The Australian’s Innovation Challenge award for agriculture, and the Queensland Premier’s Award for Excellence in Public Service Delivery.

Great progress is being made, with a truly collaborative spirit evident from all sides. Building the capacity of individuals and institutions in biosecurity research and diagnostics in these countries will enable them to self-develop their systems over time. Efforts into establishing good diagnostic systems and processes will pay off, especially when combined with well-developed incursion response and prevention strategies.

Benefits far and wide
"This work contributes to a robust plant health system that can withstand international scrutiny by providing diagnostic capability and evidence of pest presence and absence. These are the things that affect trade, so our efforts will help these countries gain greater access to export markets," says Dr Kong.

For smallholder farmers, the strengthened biosecurity should result in improved incomes, through better prices for their commodities and reduced costs associated with pest incursions.

Australia also benefits from this work, through pre-border surveillance in South-East Asia.

Dr Kong says "Pests are really difficult and costly to eliminate once they have breached our borders. Increasing vigilance and diagnostic capacity in South-East Asia will help these countries to monitor the presence and movement of pests. This is valuable information for Australia as we also need to be vigilant about specific pests that we don't currently have."

By Dr Les Baxter (ACIAR’s Horticulture research program manager) and Dr Wendy Henderson (ACIAR Communications)

More information
ACIAR projects:
HORT/2006/170 Plant Biosecurity: Technological research and training for improved pest diagnostics in Thailand and Australia
HORT/2012/027 Establishing a remote microscope network for pest identification in Cambodia, Lao PDR and Thailand
HORT/2010/069 Enabling improved plant biosecurity practices in Cambodia, Lao PDR and Thailand



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