Thursday, 31 July 2014

Biosecurity: international dimensions, threats and strategies

The topic of ‘Biosecurity: international dimensions, threats and strategies’ was addressed by ACIAR’s CEO Dr Nick Austin at a panel discussion hosted by the Rural Press Club of Victoria on 18 July 2014. In his presentation Dr Austin spoke about some of the significant contributions ACIAR-funded research has made to address issues of biosecurity internationally and in Australia. He also announced the funding of a new initiative to build plant biosecurity skills in eastern Africa. ACIAR produced a brochure highlighting the contribution of ACIAR partnerships with Victorian research agencies for the event.

A farmer field school in Fiji

Researchers rally round to save the 'Tree of Life' from sudden death

ACIAR's Dr Richard Markham describes researchers' efforts to conquer a mysterious disease destroying coconut trees in Papua New Guinea (PNG)...

The coconut has been called the 'Tree of Life' in recognition of the many products and services that it provides to support the lives and livelihoods of coastal and island people around the Tropics.  Traditionally, people have drunk the ‘water’ and eaten the flesh from coconuts as part of their staple diet; they have used the fronds to thatch their huts and the ‘wood’ for construction and utensils. Since time immemorial, groves of palms have protected coasts against erosion and shaded other crops and livestock against the tropical sun. Now, those iconic silhouettes of palms against a blue sky are being reduced to bare poles by an unfamiliar disease – Bogia coconut syndrome.

Trouble in paradise - trees at various stages of decline from Bogia coconut syndrome
Although copra and coconut oil, facing competition from other, cheaper-to-produce edible oils, are no longer the main source of wealth in the Pacific countries, in PNG almost one-third of households, some 1.5 million people, still depend on coconuts for a significant part of their food and income. There was thus a ripple of concern when rumours surfaced, several years ago, of a mystery disease killing coconut palms – and reportedly other crops – in a remote site in Bogia district on the north coast of PNG’s mainland, part-way between Madang and the border with Indonesian West Papua. Initial samples sent for molecular analysis indicated that a phytoplasma (a parasitic bacterium) similar to that causing Coconut lethal yellowing in Africa and the Caribbean was associated with the disease; however, the disease did not appear to be spreading, so there the matter rested for a while.
Trees of Life reduced to bare poles from Bogia coconut syndrome

More recently, in 2009-2010, an outbreak of the disease at Furan village, just outside the busy city of Madang, attracted a great deal more attention, with the fear that trade might now spread the disease rapidly along the coast and through the islands. The national quarantine authority, NAQIA, imposed a ban on the movement of agricultural commodities out of the area, and researchers from the Oil Palm Research Association (OPRA) and the Cocoa Coconut Institute Limited (CCIL), with support from ACIAR, launched a scoping study to investigate the cause of the disease.

Although reports of the disease affecting a range of staple food crops proved to be an exaggeration, the phytoplasma was found in Sago and Betel nut palms (with similar yellowing symptoms) – both of which are economically important species in PNG. Meanwhile, another research team found a similar phytoplasma in bananas (but occurring over a much wider area than the Bogia coconut syndrome outbreak). The phytoplasma has also been found in several sap-sucking insect species but the tests were not sensitive enough to show whether these had been merely feeding on infected palms or whether they were capable of actively spreading the disease.

Intense debate on how to save the coconut genebank
Last week, researchers from Australia (Charles Sturt University and University of Queensland) and PNG (CCIL, OPRA, NAQIA and the National Agricultural Research Institute – NARI) got together in Madang to launch a larger project, to delve more deeply into the mysteries of the disease.

They will need to prove that it really is the phytoplasma that is killing the palms, establish how it differs (if at all) from the organism killing bananas, and find out how the phytoplasma is spread. Once this knowledge is in place, it should be possible to work out more targeted measures to limit the spread of the disease and manage it within the outbreak areas.

The researchers also started to wrestle with an additional ‘crisis within a crisis’: the international coconut genebank for the South Pacific lies within the quarantine area and so can no longer serve its function of preserving and distributing the genetic resources of coconut, for PNG and the region. Researchers from CCIL and NARI are testing the palms to see whether the collection itself is still free of the disease. If it proves to be so, NAQIA will lift the quarantine restrictions enough for coconuts to be moved out of the danger area to a quarantine island, where the germinating seedlings will be tested again and, if still ‘clean’ can be used to establish a new genebank.

ACIAR and the Global Crop Diversity Trust are standing by to provide technical support and offer alternative solutions if necessary.

By Dr Richard Markham, manager of ACIAR's Horticulture and Pacific Crops research programs

More information:

For more information, refer to the final report of ACIAR's scoping study PC/2011/056 Identifying potential vectors of 'Bogia Coconut Syndrome' in Madang Province, Papua New Guinea, which will be published soon on the ACIAR website.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Local breadfruit-production technology boosting Pacific industry potential

The news is good for breadfruit farmers in the South Pacific interested in small-scale commercial production. They can now have ready access to high-performing breadfruit seedlings, thanks to new technology and training on how to transplant and establish seedlings generated using a locally-perfected tissue culture system.  

Course participants learn how to transplant seedlings at the
breadfruit training, CePaCT Fiji
The training was conducted at the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC) Centre for Pacific Crops and Trees (CePaCT) at Narere, Fiji, and involved local Ministry of Agriculture staff, and representatives from private nurseries and Nature’s Way Cooperative. They gained hands-on experience transplanting the sought-after breadfruit seedlings, and also learnt techniques to help ensure transplants successfully establish in the field.

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Better breeds, feeds and disease management - improving pig production in Lao PDR

ACIAR research is helping smallholder pig farmers in northern Lao PDR improve their livelihoods, through reducing pig mortality and lifting productivity.

Livestock are one of the main sources of income for rural farmers in Laos; for example, smallholders in Sophoun village in Phongsalay province make almost 35% of their cash from pigs. Thanks to this project, these farmers are now aware of the importance of better breeds, feed and disease management to help their animals prosper and grow.

Mixed-bred pig in well-constructed pen (photo: Emma Zalcman)

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Farming in the mountain’s shadow, Uganda

ACIAR's Forestry research program manager, Tony Bartlett, recently visited Uganda where a new agroforestry project is beginning...

On a recent visit to Uganda, I visited the small village of Butta, which lies in the foothills of Mt Elgon, to talk about the villagers' participation in a new agroforestry project: ‘Trees for Food Security’. The aim of this project is to encourage and support farmers to grow trees on farms for improved food and nutritional security. Previous research has indicated that crop yields can be doubled by incorporating the right trees and management practices into agricultural systems.

In the shadow of the mountain, Manafwa district

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Markets for healthy farm poultry in Indonesia

'Healthy Farm' branded eggs being market tested in a supermarket
Is there demand in Indonesia for niche branded poultry products that can ensure they were produced on biosecure smallholder farms?

The Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research has released a new report about a research project that developed such a niche market in Indonesia for eggs and chicken meat. 

The poultry industry is a major supplier of protein to the people of Indonesia. Biosecurity on smallholder poultry farms and a safe and hygienic value chain are becoming increasingly important to consumers and government because of the risks of avian influenza and other diseases.

Real-world training for agribusiness researchers

An enthusiastic group of 22 young agribusiness researchers are planning to use their newly acquired skills in market and consumer research to improve their work, thanks to a successful master class run in Hanoi, Vietnam.

(L-R) Pham Thi Thuy (Vietnam), Souphalack Inphonephong (Lao PDR),
Le Nhu Thinh  (Vietnam) and Idha Widi Arsanti (Indonesia)
on their way to run a focus group with women consumers