Safe and secure food productions systems

Previous Sharing and building knowledge

Protecting Australian agriculture from new pests and diseases has long been recognised as critically important to sustain production, limit dependence on pesticides and maintain access to domestic and export markets.

Research that contributes to Australia's biosecurity was a natural fit for ACIAR from the start. It has helped prevent the introduction of several new pests and diseases, and provided the knowledge and tools to limit their spread when other pests or diseases have been inadvertently introduced.

Supporting neighbouring countries to manage damaging pests and diseases clearly contributes to protecting Australia from those same threats, and the research builds the global knowledge base on serious pests and diseases, and their management and/or prevention.

ACIAR-funded projects on Newcastle disease in chickens and Panama disease in bananas are excellent examples of biosecurity research that continues to deliver benefits for the food production systems of partner countries and Australia, and increases the capacity of the scientific and regulatory organisations that work to minimise the potential and impact of pests and diseases. ACIAR support of biosecurity research and implementation programs remains important in 2022 as new or ongoing threats continue to arise, such as fruit fly, wheat blast, faba bean gall, fall armyworm and African swine fever.


Vaccine innovation secures food supply and income source

Newcastle disease is caused by a virus that is deadly for chickens and some other poultry. It spreads rapidly within and between flocks, and commonly sweeps through villages throughout Asia and Africa. The disease kills many of the scavenging chickens that are important to these communities. Village chickens are often the only source of protein and micronutrients for smallholder farmers and also provide vital income. Up until the 1980s, it was impossible to control Newcastle disease in village chickens because the available vaccines needed refrigeration.

In 1984, Professor Peter Spradbrow of the University of Queensland and Professor Latif Ibrahim (1938–2022) of the Universiti Pertanian Malaysia were funded by ACIAR to research a vaccine that could provide protection from Newcastle disease in village environments. They developed a heat-tolerant vaccine (HRV4) that could be coated onto chicken feed. The research first focused on the vaccine’s use in villages in Malaysia, and then extended to other countries in South-East Asia.

The HRV4 vaccine was commercialised by an Australian company, which was later taken over by an American firm. However, affordability of the vaccine and distribution problems limited the initial uptake of the technology in the target countries. Recognising these problems, Professor Spradbrow gained support from ACIAR to develop a new avirulent vaccine, known as I-2, in 1995. From this seed vaccine the heat-tolerant vaccine can be made locally at low cost and administered to chickens in drinking water or by eye drops. This project also developed training methods for people in partner countries to produce the I-2 vaccine from seed stocks supplied free from Australia. The technology and training were also extended to Vietnam and a number of countries in eastern, southern and western Africa.

Research and vaccine development to combat Newcastle disease in eastern and southern Africa was consolidated under new ACIAR-supported projects from 1995 to 2001. Led by the University of Queensland, the projects in Africa resulted in development of comprehensive vaccine production, distribution and administration systems for the I-2 vaccine.

The ACIAR-funded research was followed by a series of projects funded by the Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID) that continued the Newcastle disease control activities in Mozambique and expanded them into Ethiopia, Tanzania, Malawi and Zambia.

An impact assessment in 2013 concluded that total net benefits to the four African partner countries was estimated at around A$479 million, with A$80.6 million of those benefits attributed to ACIAR.

Dr Robyn Alders, now Honorary Professor at the Australian National University and a Senior Consulting Fellow with the Chatham House Global Health Programme, worked on the ACIAR-funded project in Mozambique. Dr Alders was involved in taking the thermotolerant vaccine from Asia and adapting its use for Africa. The project actively involved men and women chicken farmers, and a novel cost-recovery program involving community vaccinators for Newcastle disease was developed.

A man and a woman stand holding chickens in front of a mud hut with a thatch roof.
An impact assessment in 2013 of research and development investment to control Newcastle disease concluded that total net benefits to four African partner countries was estimated at around A$479 million, with A$80.6 million of those benefits attributed to ACIAR investment. Pictured are residents of Singida, Tanzania. Photo: ACIAR | 2012

This made the vaccination program sustainable, without needing international resources. The cost-sharing model with village farmers has been adopted in many countries in Africa and Asia, including Timor-Leste, helping to increase biosecurity against poultry diseases in those regions as well.

In addition to economic and social benefits of the project in Africa and South-East Asia, the development of the new vaccine strengthened Australia’s management of poultry diseases.

Text reads 60 : 1 return on Australian Government investment Benefits: Vaccination of village chickens in Africa has reduced poultry mortality rates and allowed households to expand their flocks and increase production for sale and consumption. Source: ACIAR Impact Assessment No. 87, 2014

‘In terms of clinical signs, you can’t tell the difference between virulent Newcastle disease and highly pathogenic avian influenza. This makes it difficult to rapidly identify outbreaks of avian influenza in regions where farmers are accustomed to seeing chickens die regularly from Newcastle disease,’ explained Dr Alders.

‘When farmers believe that the vaccine will prevent Newcastle disease, they are willing to pay a fair price for the vaccine and its administration by community vaccinators. Because of this investment, should vaccinated birds then die, those farmers are more likely to report that death. That then provides a more sensitive surveillance system for highly pathogenic avian influenza.’

A woman in a yellow cap kneels at the front holding a chicken. Behind her are a group of men, women and children who are smiling at the camera. One of the women is also wearing a yellow cap. Behind them is a small building with a thatch roof.
ACIAR-supported research for a vaccine for Newcastle disease in poultry resulted in the development of an effective thermo-tolerant vaccine and the scaling out of vaccine production, distribution and administration systems on South-East Asia and Africa. Project leader for the work in Mozambique, Dr Robyn Alders (front, left) visited the Singida district in Tanzania to see residents who have been successfully vaccinating their poultry, including lead vaccinator, Asha (back, centre, in yellow cap). Photo: ACIAR | 2012​​​​​















Overseas research protects Australian banana industry

Panama disease in bananas is caused by the soil-borne Fusarium fungus – the disease is also called Fusarium wilt. Spread by people, animals and machinery through the movement of infected banana plants, soil, water or planting material, Panama disease can survive in the soil for decades. The disease is one of the greatest threats to global banana production and control of the fungus is centred around slowing the spread of the disease and planting resistant varieties of bananas.

In the 1950s, Panama disease was responsible for widespread destruction of banana plantations in Central and South America, resulting in the abandonment of the susceptible Gros Michel variety from commercial plantations.

Banana producers then adopted the Cavendish cultivar, which was resistant to the type or race of Fusarium that had destroyed the Gros Michel industry. However, in the 1990s, a new strain of Fusarium wilt was discovered to be infecting the Cavendish banana – Tropical Race 4 (TR4). The new strain was first detected in Taiwan and spread rapidly through South-East Asia, wiping out the Cavendish-based banana industry in Malaysia and appearing in Indonesia in 1994.

TR4 made its way to Australia in 1997 and was first detected in the Northern Territory. Just six years later, the territory’s burgeoning banana industry was wiped out. However, due to strict quarantine measures, Australia’s major banana production hub in Queensland remained disease-free.

Three men standing around a banana tree. One man is kneeling next to the tree. The other two are bent over, no looking upwards at the tree. There are banana trees surrounding them.
Mr Patrick Leahy (centre), a Queensland banana grower and member of Australian Banana Growers’ Council, discusses the challenges of Panama disease TR4 on his plantation with ACIAR Research Program Manager, Horticulture, Dr Richard Markham (left) and Principal Nematologist with the Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, Dr Tony Pattison (right). Photo: ACIAR | 2017

The disease reached the Philippines, one of the largest banana-exporting nations in the world, in 2005.

ACIAR funded research to evaluate Fusarium wilt resistant hybrids and cultivars in Tonga and Queensland in 1995. In the mid-2000s, with the ongoing threat and spread of TR4, two projects were established in Indonesia and led by Bioversity International to develop science-based disease management approaches.

Knowledge gained in Indonesia formed the basis of a research program between the Philippines government and ACIAR to develop a series of projects to help smallholder banana farmers fight TR4. Led by the Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, research started in 2012 to increase knowledge of on-farm biosecurity, minimise Fusarium wilt incursions, develop long-term management strategies to slow the spread of the disease and develop options to allow smallholder producers to return to economic production.

Dr Tony Pattison, Principal Nematologist with the Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, was involved in the ACIAR-supported projects in Indonesia and the Philippines since the late 2000s, and he led the Philippines-based research from 2015.

‘Many smallholder farmers were growing the highly susceptible Cavendish banana “Grand Nain” because it was preferred by consumers in the Philippines and provided a good livelihood for banana growers.

‘Different varieties of banana are not always accepted by the market, so the ACIAR-funded work concentrated on building the capacity of Philippine growers, local universities and provincial agricultural officers to help banana growers manage Panama disease.

‘The ACIAR-funded work generated much greater awareness of the severity of the disease and how easily it is transferred. The research also reinforced the importance of on-farm biosecurity practices.’

Generating a better understanding of soil biology and how this can be used more productively to prevent Panama disease, rather than relying on chemical interventions, underpinned a lot of the extension work associated with the project. Simple technologies that were tested and implemented by the farmers included growing vegetative disease-suppressive groundcovers under the banana canopy and planting more disease-resistant cultivars. These practices helped reduce the susceptibility of banana plants to the disease.

Experience with Fusarium wilt of banana through ACIAR-supported projects was vital in assisting the Australian banana industry to manage the disease when it was detected on a Queensland farm in 2015. Biosecurity Queensland was quick to quarantine the plantation at the centre of the outbreak and set up biosecurity restrictions to stop the spread of the fungus.

The expertise developed by the research team throughout the ACIAR-funded project, and the knowledge shared with Australian agencies and producers, ensured that the Australian banana industry was vigilant and quick to respond to incursions of the disease.

A woman in a straw hat and a blue shirt holds open the blue plastic covering over a bunch of bananas hanging from a banana tree.
A banana grower in the Philippines inspects healthy fruit in her plantation. ACIAR-supported projects introduced simple technologies to reduce the impact of Panama disease. These were tested and implemented by farmers and included growing vegetative disease-suppressive groundcovers under the banana canopy and planting more disease-resistant cultivars. Photo: ACIAR | 2017

From 2015 to 2022, only 157 trees in northern Queensland have been diagnosed with Panama disease and had to be destroyed. Unfortunately, the area of land infected with Fusarium wilt in districts growing bananas for export production in Mindanao, the Philippines, continues to grow.

ACIAR support of efforts to manage Panama disease in partner countries, or to prevent its incursion, is ongoing. A 5-year project that started in 2020 in Indonesia, the Philippines and Laos is examining different farm management practices to increase the soil microbiome and make it harder for Fusarium to grow in the soil.

In 2022, a new ACIAR-supported project, led by Mr Stewart Lindsay from the Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, was implemented in Mozambique and Tanzania to investigate banana farming systems, the cultivars grown and production practices for susceptibility to Panama disease. The project also seeks to work with country partners and landholders to identify practical biosecurity measures to reduce risks and mitigate potential damage from the disease on small farms.

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Featured left: An ACIAR-supported project led by Dr Grant Singleton and Dr Romeo Labios of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) aimed to increase and sustain the productivity of both rice–rice and rice–pulse cropping systems in the Ayeyarwady Delta region of Myanmar, from 2012 to 2017. The project also supported agricultural researchers to gain skills and knowledge in rice production systems and natural resource management. Photo: ACIAR | 2018
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