One of Australian horticulture’s most significant biosecurity responses began in March when Panama disease Tropical Race 4 (TR4) was first suspected on a Tully Valley farm.
Quick action from a grower reporting unhealthy plants, and in sampling and testing, bring the shock news that TR4 had reached one of Australia’s major banana growing regions. Further quick action has been taken to contain the fungal disease. Here’s how he response unfolded.
10 February – Bevan Robson, the owner of a banana farm in the Tully Valley, contacts Australian Banana Growers’ Council (ABGC) liaison officer Louis Lardi to report unhealthy plants.
11 February – Louis visits the farm to take samples. Samples go to the Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries (QDAF) for diagnosis. An initial assessment, based on the plant symptoms, indicates it could be bacterial soft rot, or Erwinia. Tests are completed for Erwinia and, as a precaution, for the fungus Fusarium.
19 February – initial tests confirm the presence of bacteria that causes soft
rot in bananas. One sample also tests positive for Fusarium. Fusarium fungi are common in soil and can secondarily infect sick plants. There are no Panama symptoms. Testing for TR4 begins.
20 February – the cultures of Fusarium are sent to Brisbane for further testing (known as PCR molecular or DNA testing) in line with normal procedures.
3 March – an initial positive result for TR4 is received.
4 March – the farm is quarantined and Biosecurity Queensland (BQ) announces the first case of TR4 in a major Australian growing region is suspected. Before TR4 can be confirmed, further PCR tests are conducted, as well as biological Vegetative Compatibility Grouping (VCG) tests to identify the strain of TR4.
5 March – the ABGC begins hosting the first round of information meetings for banana growers and other industry members in Tully, Innisfail and Mareeba.
9 March – BQ announces it has begun a program of tracing, surveillance and sampling in the Tully area. More plant samples are taken from the Tully Valley farm. BQ establishes a State Control Centre in Brisbane and a Local Control Centre at North Queensland’s South Johnstone Research Station to manage the response (it later moves to Moresby). A Forward Command Post is established at Tully.
11 March – Further PCR testing of the original samples is conducted in Darwin and supports the initial results. Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk and Agriculture Minister Bill Byrne meet with banana farmers and industry leaders in Tully. The Premier meets with the Robson family. Federal Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce says BQ has requested assistance through the national Rapid Response Team.
12 March – The ABGC begins hosting a second round of banana grower and industry meetings. BQ Principal Biosecurity Officer for North Queensland Russell Gilmour tells the first meeting, at Tully, that BQ is now confident TR4 is present on the Tully Valley farm.
15 March – BQ announces TR4 is confirmed, based on PCR test results on the second batch of plant samples collected.
16 March – Premier Palaszczuk says BQ will boost TR4 response staff to 50. She asks all Queenslanders to support the banana industry.
20 March – BQ announces the strain of TR4 confirmed in Tully is the same as in the Northern Territory, where TR4 was confirmed in 1997, and in many other overseas locations.
28 March – Destruction begins of 10 plants positive for TR4 and 200 surrounding plants on two blocks totalling 10 hectares. Minister Byrne meets banana growers in Tully ahead of the Queensland Government’s community cabinet in Townsville on 29 March.
30 March – BQ announces 16,000 banana plants on the 10ha block will be destroyed. Almost 70 BQ staff are working on the response and are to be joined by a further 20.
9 April – A detection of TR4 (later overturned) is confirmed near Mareeba on grower Mark Reppel’s farm after he reports a suspect plant. The farm is quarantined. Further grower meetings are held.
17 April – A three-day BQ and ABGC workshop on minimum-farm standards concludes with standards expected to be finalised in May.
23 April – ABGC gains $300,000 in Qld Govt funding to provide biosecurity advice to growers. The Federal Govt later provides a further $300,000.
26 and 27 April – Farming restarts on the two quarantined farms after both meet BQ requirements. A voluntary levy of 1 cent a kilogram is introduced to assist the two growers.
19 May – TR4 diagnosis for Mark Reppel’s farm is overturned.
Panama disease history
Late 1600s– a race of the disease became widespread in the Americas in Silk bananas
Post 1850 – a commercial banana industry develops growing Gros Michel, a variety susceptible to a disease that will become known as Panama Race 1
1876 – Report of Panama Race 1 symptoms on Sugar bananas grown in Brisbane
1890 – Panama disease begins causing losses of Gros Michel bananas in the Americas
1911 – The name Panama adopted to describe the disease after a severe outbreak or Race 1 occurs in Panama
1912 – Gros Michel introduced to Australia and reported as being susceptible to Race 1
1950s – Race 1-resistant Cavendish bananas become the major commercial banana variety, replacing Gros Michel
1960s – Panama disease found in Taiwan affecting Cavendish types. In the 1970s the disease is recognised as Race 4
1970s – a variant, Subtropical Race 4 – affects banana plants in a small area of southern Queensland and on one Byron Bay farm
1990s – Tropical Race 4 (TR4) confirmed in Malaysia and Indonesia
1997 – TR4 confirmed in the Northern Territory
2000s – TR4 in mainland China and the Philippines
2013 – Reported in Mozambique in Africa and Jordan in the Middle East. Also reported in Oman in the Middle East
2015 – Confirmed in North Queensland and also in Lebanon and Pakistan.
300 years of Panama’s races
Fusarium wilt of bananas was named Panama in the early 1900s but its presence stretches back more than 300 years. The disease’s most serious form, Tropical Race 4 (TR4), was identified in the 1990s and news of its worldwide spread soon began to accelerate.
TR4 arrived in Australia in the Northern Territory in 1997. Recent outbreaks in 2013 hit Mozambique, Jordan and Oman. In March his year it was confirmed in North Queensland as well as in Lebanon and Pakistan.