Strengthening relationships and banana biosecurity in PNG

February 29, 2024

Participants in the field as part of the exotic and emerging banana diseases workshop in PNG.

The Crawford Fund QLD Committee supports targeted training and mentoring of overseas scientists and extension officers by experienced Queensland counterparts working on similar agricultural research challenges through its International Engagement Awards. Applications for the 2024 International Engagement Awards close on 29 March 2024. More information is available here.

In 2020, Dr Lilia Costa Carvalhais a Senior Research Fellow from the Centre for Horticultural Science, Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation at the University of Queensland was announced as one of the successful recipients of these awards.

Lilia planned to organise and deliver a workshop aimed at reducing the risk of emerging banana diseases in Papua New Guinea. But then of course, along came a global pandemic, and COVID settled in! Add to this, delays because of elections within PNG, and the workshop was delayed further. We are pleased to report that the workshop has now been successfully completed!

Facilitators and attendees of the workshop on “Banana Disease Threats in Papua New Guinea” in the National Agriculture Research Institute of Papua New Guinea in October 2023.

“The workshop brought all the relevant information from emerging and exotic banana diseases together and focused on disease symptoms, disease cycle, impact of disease and ways to diagnose it,” said Lilia.

The expected outcomes of the workshop included:

  • Capacity building in diagnostics of banana diseases of key personnel in PNG involved in agricultural research, diagnostics and biosecurity.
  • Creation of new opportunities of collaboration between Australia and PNG in plant pathology and biosecurity.
  • Building of potentially long-lasting relationships between researchers in agriculture working in Australia and PNG.

The first day included presentations on various aspects of major banana diseases, such as bacterial wilts, banana bunchy top virus, other minor viruses, fusarium wilt tropical race 4, and banana wilt associated phytoplasma (BWAP), a devastating pathogen that has spread from the Madang province.

Many of these pathogens are also exotic to Australia. Bananas are one of Australia’s largest horticultural industries with a farm gate value of $600 million annually of which 95 per cent originates in North Queensland explained Lilia.

The second and third days consisted of hands-on training to diagnose key disease threats with molecular tools.

Hands-on activity with attendees of the workshop learning about molecular diagnostic methods to detect exotic and emerging diseases in banana.

The National Agricultural Research Institute (NARI) in Lae, Morobe province hosted the workshop, with eight early-career scientists from relevant organisations including PNG’s National Agricultural Quarantine and Inspection Authority, Kokonas Indastri Koporesen, PNG University of Technology and NARI itself.

“These participants and their respective organisations are all involved in various aspects of crop protection and diagnosis of plant diseases and biosecurity. Careful selection of key participants was an important component of our project to ensure that the people who receive the training not only require the skills and capabilities but also have the capacity to utilise these skills in their regular job responsibilities for the benefit of agriculture and food production in PNG,” said Lilia.

“As our nearest neighbour, traditionally there has been a strong link in agricultural research between Australia and PNG. For this collaboration to continue it is important that we involve the next generation of researchers both in PNG and Australia to ensure an ongoing strong collaboration,” she said.

“The trainers involved some Australians with a lot of existing links and experience in PNG and some midcareer and young researchers, including me,” said Lilia.

The participants were all mid-career or young researchers who could benefit from upskilling during an important phase of their career and who benefit from forming strong and enduring connections and networks with Australian researchers she explained.

“PNG is the closest country to Australia and the Torres Strait Islands can act as stepping-stones for pathogens to reach the banana growing regions. Helping PNG to remain free of these diseases reduces the risk of introduction into Australia and benefits both countries from their absence,” said Lilia.

As well as Dr Carvalhais, the trainers were a team from the University of Queensland including Prof Andre Drenth and A/Prof John Thomas, as well as Dr Richard Davis from the Northern Australia Quarantine Strategy and Dr Kathy Crew from the Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries.