Series of shocks in TR4 fight

In the weeks since the fungal disease was first suspected on a Tully Valley farm on March 4 there have been a series of shocks for the banana industry.

The suspected TR4 case was confirmed on March 15 in devastating news for the farm’s owners, the Robsons.

Five weeks after the initial TR4 announcement, there was Biosecurity Queensland (BQ) confirmation, later overturned, of a TR4 detection on a banana farm near Mareeba on the Atherton Tablelands, 180kms north west of Tully.

The farm, operated by grower Mark Reppel, was quarantined for more than five weeks, from April 9, after molecular PCR testing on samples taken from a plant returned results positive to TR4.

However, a follow-up test, called a vegetative compatibility group (VCG) test, overturned that finding, determining the samples were clear of TR4 and allowing the farm’s quarantine to be lifted.

The incident led BQ to remove that particular PCR test from its suite of tests and to announce professional services firm Deloitte Australia was reviewing procedures used by BQ and the University of Queensland for TR4 testing.

Acting Chief Biosecurity Officer Malcolm Letts said although the Mareeba confirmation had been overturned following the final test results, BQ was certain TR4 was present in the Tully Valley.

“We still have a confirmed case of Panama disease Tropical Race 4 at Tully and growers should continue strengthening their on-farm biosecurity practices to protect their businesses,” he said.

“To date, 12 diagnostic tests including visual, molecular and biological testing, conducted on a range of samples from the Tully property have all been positive.”

Australian Banana Growers’ Council (ABGC) Chairman Doug Phillips said growers needed to remain vigilant and continue with their biosecurity initiatives.

“The announcement that the Mareeba farm has had its initial TR4 diagnosis overturned and its quarantine lifted is great news for that farm’s grower and his family and for the banana industry,” Mr Phillips said.

“However, growers need to remember there is still one case of TR4 on a Tully Valley farm and this result has been confirmed using the highest level of TR4 testing available. Growers need to remain vigilant and continue with their on-farm biosecurity measures and we also need to continue to support the grower and his family.”

The ABGC has held three rounds of grower meetings in March and April in the three North Queensland banana-growing towns of Tully, Mareeba and Innisfail.

The ABGC has also sought Federal and Queensland Government assistance. The ABGC had called for measures including:

  •  A BQ-approved protocol setting out “minimum biosecurity standards” that infected farms need to meet in order to restart their farming operations. The standards, and accompanying guidelines, were released in May
  • Government funding assistance for TR4-infected farms, including assistance for the costs of destroying infected plants and fencing infected farms
  • A joint Government-grower funded program for other farm biosecurity measures. A $600,000 project was announced in late April
  • A BQ-regulated program for ensuring the provision of clean banana planting material
  • A special Research and Development fund to assist with TR4 research.
Quarantine action

The two farms temporarily shut down following quarantine action returned to production at the end of April after meeting BQ interim requirements.

The Robsons farm in the Tully Valley was shut down for almost eight weeks and Mark Reppel’s farm near Mareeba for almost two-and-a-half weeks while the measures were finalised and Inspector’s Approvals issued.

The quarantine on Mark Reppel’s farm was lifted on May 19. “I’ve never been through a time like it, it’s certainly been the worst time we’ve ever had,” Mark said.

While he and his family were relieved to have the TR4 diagnosis overturned their thoughts were with the Robson family. “They’re still going through a world of pain and we need to temper any happiness that we’ve got and keep in mind what they’re going through,” he said.

Both farms have been assessing their financial losses from the interruption to farm operations. The ABGC announced a voluntary levy that began on April 27to provide compensation for the two growers and has also received funding commitments from the Federal and Queensland governments.