Rebecca Sapuppo: the race against time to safeguard our industry

For Innisfail local Rebecca Sapuppo, leading the TR4 Program is more than just a job. Rebecca talks about what motivates her and the Program’s team.

For more than a decade, Rebecca Sapuppo has been part of Biosecurity Queensland’s (BQ’s) efforts to manage the plant pests and diseases that threaten the State’s borders.

Now the Innisfail local is leading the North Queensland biosecurity response to potentially the biggest threat ever faced by Australia’s $600 million banana industry – the soil-borne disease Panama Tropical Race 4 (TR4).

Like all North Queenslanders, she knows there’s a lot at stake.

“It’s a threat to the cornerstone industry in our region and the livelihoods of many residents,” Rebecca said when asked about the threat posed by TR4.

“The majority of the close-knit population in Far North Queensland has some association with, or is supported by, the banana industry.

“If Tropical Race 4 were to become widespread, particularly in the far north, it could mean a dramatic change to the local communities that we know and love as the banana industry adjusts to the presence of the disease in its production area.”

With experience in surveillance and response work, Rebecca knows about the challenges of TR4 as well as what’s required to control and manage pest incursions.

In 2003, as a new recruit to the then Department of Primary Industries, she was among biosecurity staff who travelled across the north to search for pests and diseases, including TR4.

“My early career focused on plant, pest and disease surveillance programs including surveillance for Panama disease in Cape York, Torres Strait and Far North Queensland,” Rebecca said.

Twelve year’s later, her role has progressed from field surveillance to senior roles in two of the biggest pest responses in the history of the Australian banana industry.

The first began in 2013, when she was BQ’s Incident Response Coordinator. She provided technical and policy support to the General Manager and was part of the national consultative committee working on the first major pest response launched under a new national pest response plan – the Emergency Plant Pest Response Deed (EPPRD). The response was for the outbreak of Banana Freckle on Cavendish bananas in the Northern Territory.

Just over two years’ later, she is now working on the banana industry’s greatest pest challenge – the presence of TR4 in Australia’s major growing region.

The TR4 incursion was announced in March 2015, ironically at a time when Rebecca was coordinating an incident response on the home front.

“I was on maternity leave when Tropical Race 4 was first detected,” Rebecca said.

“As an Incident Response Manager, I really wanted to be involved and to put theory into practice.

“This is what I had been trained in and had been prepared for since joining Biosecurity Queensland, but I knew the long days involved were not compatible to having a brand new baby in the house.

“I’m really pleased that I’ve been able to return to work now and contribute to the program.”

In September, she was appointed as Program Leader for the second phase of the TR4 Response – the Management Phase. An earlier Emergency Phase was led by BQ’s Russell Gilmour.

Unlike the Freckle response, it has been determined that the soil-borneTR4 cannot be eradicated, bringing a different set of challenges. TR4 is regarded as one of the world’s worst banana plant diseases and has not been eradicated from any of the global banana-growing regions where it has emerged.

“Managing a response for a non-eradicable disease is unlike any of the responses that I have been involved with before,” Rebecca said.

“The technical reasons why the disease isn’t eradicable also mean that it’s very challenging for us to accurately detect and effectively contain.”

So, can the banana industry successfully respond to the threat?

Rebecca has already seen North Queensland banana growers quickly come to terms with what’s required now that TR4 is in the region.

Just months before the TR4 detection was confirmed in the Tully Valley, she was one of the presenters at the inaugural banana industry extension roadshow held in July and August 2014.

Along with the then Australian Banana Growers’ Council (ABGC) R&D Manager Jay Anderson, Rebecca made a presentation on “Risky Business, pests, pathways and opportunities”.

Featured was information on TR4 as well as other plant pests.

“At the time of the roadshow there was general interest in biosecurity but I felt that people were a bit overwhelmed – they didn’t know where to start or they felt that it was too big an issue to tackle for their farm,” Rebecca said.

Only months later, and with the industry on full alert, she said the efforts of growers to get up to speed quickly on biosecurity have been significant.

“I’ve been really impressed by the banana industry’s willingness to adopt and learn about on-farm biosecurity now that Panama is on their doorstep in Far North Queensland,” Rebecca said.

BQ has also launched community engagement initiatives to make sure everyone in North Queensland communities understands the importance of the TR4 response and the need for surveillance, sampling and on-farm biosecurity.

Rebecca has family and friends in the banana industry as well as the broader community and said there was widespread understanding of the importance of the response work.

It is also something deeply felt within the BQ team working on the response from locations around North Queensland banana growing regions.

“As a North Queensland local with a young family and a family business closely associated with the banana industry, I know all too well the social, economic and psychological impact that Panama Tropical Race 4 could have on the community if it were allowed to spread,” Rebecca said.

“I want to be able to continue to live and work here. I want my children to go to school here and for my friends to have viable businesses – that’s what motivated me to become part of the program and that’s what motivates me to continue to support industry and growers to stop the spread of Panama Tropical Race 4.”

The initial emergency phase began in March when the disease was confirmed on one Tully Valley farm.

“The greatest challenge of the emergency response phase was assembling a dynamic group of staff over a six month period to start managing and containing the disease for the long term,” Rebecca said.

“Staff endured long days of hard work, often away from home. I was so impressed by the body of work that was completed during this phase. It was an exceptionally significant effort from everyone at such a critical time.”

The new phase of the Panama response began on September 1 and is headquartered at the former Moresby State School. Assembling a team to carry on the work is a priority.

The Queensland Government has committed $9.8 million in TR4 response funding for the current financial year.

“The most exciting aspect for me in this process is that we have the opportunity to assemble an expert team focused on working with industry to contain and manage Panama disease,” Rebecca says.

And with the future of the banana industry at stake, the group is highly motivated to succeed.

“The group of people we are assembling at the Panama Tropical Race 4 Program are passionate and motivated and are working really hard to help protect the banana industry from this threat.

“Many of the staff are locals who understand the impact that Tropical Race 4 can have if we do not manage or slow the disease.”

As at the end of 2015, there were 51 staff dedicated to the Panama team. Included were 27 staff in planning, operations, administration, information technology and community engagement. A further six were in the diagnostic team and there were 18 surveillance staff – 17 working out of the forward command post at Tully and one at the second forward command post at Mareeba.

In the future, the Program may involve up to 79 people working on surveillance, quarantine controls, community engagement and communication, technical planning, lab diagnostics, plant pathology, and a whole range of administrative and support positions to keep things ticking.

Rebecca said it’s important that the North Queensland community understands the work is more than just another biosecurity job for the team.

“People have to understand that it’s not just about biosecurity officers in orange suits walking up and down properties looking for suspect plants or enforcing quarantine measures,” she says.

“We are all emotionally invested in saving the industry to preserve the community, our way of life and the livelihoods of the locals.”