Impact of the Banana Plant Protection Program

The Banana Plant Protection Program, led by Professor André Drenth — conducted from November 2011 to December 2016 — was one of the banana industry’s largest research programs. Here, Prof  Drenth takes a look at what was achieved during course of the program. 

By Professor André Drenth

The program objectives were to: improve detection, identification, containment or eradication for exotic diseases; import, maintain and store banana varieties in tissue culture; and screen varieties for resistance to Fusarium wilt R1 and TR4 and leaf diseases, in different field trials.

The program also aimed to improve the management of Yellow Sigatoka and weevil borers, and develop and maintain a research capacity to deal with emerging pest and disease issues.

The program developed a forward-looking approach for the screening of germplasm for a range of diseases. Field trials were established in Duranbah to screen for Fusarium wilt R1, leaf diseases and cold tolerance, South Johnstone for Agronomic performance, and the Northern Territory (NT) for screening for Fusarium wilt TR4.

New global links were established with overseas breeding and selection programs and new banana germplasm was obtained. A strategic decision strongly supported by industry was made to prepare the industry for TR4 and currently 28 varieties are screened for resistance to TR4 in the NT as part of the program. In addition, more material is on its way and, through new international collaboration, some material is being screened overseas prior to introduction into Australia.

Due to the closure of the Eagle Farm quarantine station, the program established and managed a new post-entry quarantine laboratory, with more extensive screening for pathogens. This is to ensure that the import of new germplasm does not lead to the introduction of new pathogens. The program also funded the importation of 30 new varieties from a range of different sources, and maintained existing and new germplasm in tissue culture to ensure the industry has access to pathogen-free planting material when required.

The program funded research on Banana Freckle and the development of a diagnostic test which can separate endemic Banana Freckle from the two known exotic species. Information and the tools developed by program scientists were vital in the detection and accurate identification of the  Freckle outbreak in 2013 in the NT, and the eradication program that followed.

The diagnostic part of the program, led by Dr Juliane Henderson, was also instrumental in the identification of Fusarium wilt TR4 from Tully in 2015. The program provided further testing and guidance to get the TR4 containment program started. Ongoing support, in the form of diagnostics and advice, has been provided during the ongoing containment activities.

Monitoring Yellow Sigatoka as part of the program revealed resistance to strobilurin fungicides, which significantly reduced the effectiveness of this group of fungicides in Far North Queensland. Field trials revealed differences in effectiveness between fungicide application programs consisting of fungicides compatible with mineral oil and the use of chlorothalonil.  As a result, changes have been made to Yellow Sigatoka spray schedules in the North. New biological-based options for weevil borer control were trialled resulting in the commercial availability of a pheromone lure for weevils in Australia, while new easy-to-use trap designs are still under investigation.

Communication to the industry was done at many different levels, such as regular articles in Australian Bananas Magazine, the organisation of several field days and through presentations at roadshows and the Banana Congress. International exchanges involving bringing experts to Australia, and several workshops, were organised to improve national and international collaboration.

Training of the next generation of banana researchers has taken place through the involvement of 17 students in many aspects of the program. Overall, the program has had a major impact on several aspects of the banana industry and, as a result, most of the activities in this program are continued as two separate projects, one led by the University of Queensland, and the other by the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, the New South Wales Department of Primary Industries and the NT Department of Primary Industries and Fisheries.

*This project has been funded by Horticulture Innovation Australia Limited using the research and development banana industry levy and funds from the Australian Government.