Israel boasts one of the most disease-free, pest-free banana industries in the world. However, with Panama Tropical Race 4 (TR4) at its doorstep, scientists from the Middle Eastern nation visited Australia to share their knowledge and gain first-hand insight into our own worldclass biosecurity fight against TR4.
By Sonia Campbell
For the past decade, banana growers in Israel have watched nervously as Panama TR4 has spread to neighbouring countries, wreaking havoc on banana crops and putting their own industry in serious jeopardy.
Israeli researchers, Dr Navot Galpaz and Dr Stanley Freeman, along with banana extension specialist Yuval Levy, recently toured Australia on a fact-finding mission, to learn more about our world-leading biosecurity efforts and cutting-edge applied research into Panama disease.
Speaking during a visit to the South Johnstone Research Station in North Queensland, Dr Galpaz — a banana and mango researcher — said Panama TR4 was one of the biggest threats to Israel’s banana trade, which is the highest producing horticultural sector in the country.
“We are highly concerned because our neighbouring countries, Jordan and Lebanon, they have had the disease (Panama TR4) for at least 10 years and it’s very close to our plantations,” Dr Galpaz said.
“We want to prepare ourselves for the (potential) scenario that we have to deal with (if Israel gets Panama TR4). You know it has spread all over the world. And, you (Australia) are leading the world in biosecurity, so it’s the place to know (how to defend against it),” he said.
Dr Galpaz said currently Israel’s best defence against Panama TR4 was increasing industry knowledge of the disease and awareness of its symptoms.
“Yuval is a banana extension specialist and his job is to ensure the farmers know how to recognise the symptoms. We have (also) imported some TR4 resistant lines, to see how they perform in Israel, in case we need it,” he said.
During their tour, the industry delegates got a first-hand look into the ground-breaking research and technology being used by Australian scientists at the forefront of our collaborative TR4 research and development approach.
This included visits to the Duranbah Research Station in New South Wales and a tour of banana trials at the Coastal Plain Research Station in the Northern Territory. They also met with staff from the University of Queensland, Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries and the Northern Territory Department of Primary Industries and Resources.
Farm visits in Tully also allowed the group to see some of the strict biosecurity measures that are now in place across the majority of farms the north, since TR4’s first detection in the region in March 2015.
It was not the first trip to Australia for Dr Freeman – a banana and mango researcher with the Israeli Department of Plant Pathology and Weed Research. He had previously toured the country on the invitation of mango growers, keen to garner knowledge of his studies into mango diseases.
However, his latest trip allowed him to not only collaborate with industry experts in similar fields, but to gain some critical insights into Australia’s ongoing efforts to contain Panama TR4, which he was quick to praise.
“I’m also involved in research of mango malformation (disease), which is a serious problem worldwide, and I’ve been out here twice already on the growers’ invitation imparting my knowledge and getting updates from them on how they are trying to deal with the situation on mangoes.”
“On the other hand, I’m trying to study what is happening in terms of (Panama) TR4 spread as a plant pathologist, also the diagnostic methods and updated methods that are being applied for detection of the pathogen.”
Israel is fortunate to have one of the cleanest banana industries in the world, almost completely void of pests and diseases, thanks to a high standard of best practice and the country’s intense sub-tropical climate.
“We have very dry summers and therefore the humidity conditions are also lower than here and anywhere. So I think that the diseases that occur in high humidity aren’t really present in Israel, all the bacterial diseases.
“Anthracnose disease, for instance, doesn’t exist (in Israel) and it is a problem here, and I think there are many other diseases (elsewhere), but we don’t have many insect pests as well that are present here (in Australia).”
While diseases and pests may not be an issue, Israel’s extreme climate has created many challenges for banana growers and industry researchers.
Extremely cold winters — including sub-zero temperatures, hail and frost — and severely dry, hot summers with intense radiation levels have seen the industry introduce shade netting and thermal covers over plantations as a means of environmental stress protection. So far the net trials have contributed to a 25% saving in irrigation levels during summer months, when shade housing is used.