Farmers say fall armyworm, the ‘coronavirus of agriculture’, could force up food prices

There are fears food prices could rise as a pest caterpillar described as the “coronavirus of agriculture” continues its relentless march across the country.

It has been a year since fall armyworm — not the species that eats lawns — was first detected at Bamaga at the tip of Far North Queensland.

The hungry caterpillar, native to the Americas, is now devouring crops throughout Queensland and has invaded farms and plantations in the Northern Territory, Western Australia, New South Wales and Victoria.

Ray Graham, who owns Queensland’s largest dairy farm, says the pest is the biggest threat to the agriculture industry Australia has ever seen.

“It’s almost a coronavirus for agriculture — we need research and we need money thrown at this quickly,” he said.

‘Never seen anything so vicious’

One of the first areas to be hit by the fall armyworm was the food bowl of Queensland’s Atherton Tablelands, west of Cairns, which produces more than 60 crops in an industry worth more than $500 million a year.

A year on since the grubs were first detected, entire corn crops have been destroyed and experts say the pest is now turning its attention to other crops, including peanuts and avocados.

Corn grower Geoff Riesen, from Yungaburra, said he had been spending more than $2,000 a week on chemicals, to no avail.

“I’ve been farming all my life and I’ve never seen anything so vicious,” Mr Riesen said.

“Every paddock is infected with this on the Atherton Tablelands.

“And it’s not just here, it’s everywhere. It’s in New South Wales, it’s in Victoria, it’s absolutely frightening.”

Mr Riesen’s neighbour, corn grower Bob Lloyd, is in a similar situation. He said pesticide chemicals were proving useless, because the caterpillar hid in the base of the plant, which protected it.

Both men said they were now considering not planting corn again.

Dairy farmers could cut stock

Mr Graham, a fourth generation Queensland dairy farmer, said the grub could have a devastating impact on his operation.

Mr Graham buys 3,500 tonnes of silage — which is fodder made from corn — and a further 2,000 tonnes of grain from local growers to feed his 900 milking cows each year.

“If we aren’t able to source the grain and silage, we will have to get rid of 250 head of cows,” he said.

“We don’t have any alternative but to cut numbers because we’ve got to feed the cattle.

“There isn’t an alternative, there isn’t a fallback situation.”

‘Devastation from the air’

Crop sprayer Hamish Jacob, who is based at Atherton, said he had been struggling to keep up with requests from farmers to spray their fields for fall armyworm.

He said the damage from the air was clearly evident, with patches of yellow and dying crops.

“It is devastation from the air,” Mr Jacob said.

A damaged corn field seen from the air
Atherton Tablelands producers describe the damage caused by the fall armyworm invasion as a “green drought”.(ABC Far North: Brendan Mounter)

“We just don’t have the chemistry to deal with it.

“It’s hard knowing that I still have to charge for what I do.

“I’m providing a service they need but it just takes the shine off to be taking money from someone that is not really going to see anything at the end of it.”

Mr Jacob said the mental toll on farmers had been enormous.

“They’re calling it the green drought,” he said.

“They’ve stuck all that money in the ground and the way it’s looking at the moment, I can’t see how anyone is going to make money out of corn crops this year.”

‘Costs are going to rise’

Local agronomist Paul Keevers said the pest had spread into several states, including New South Wales and Victoria.

He said a looming food shortage was possible.

“The implications for the supply chain especially for the food market can be devastating, the costs are going to rise,” he said.

“They [fall armyworm] attack all sorts of crops and we grow 60 different crops on the Tablelands.

“We’re pretty confident unfortunately that it’s going to take most of those.

“We are already seeing attacks on peanuts and other crops, including avocados.

“All the beef farmers will be impacted, and we will have all the dairy farmers who use grain inside their sheds and silage in their pits so they’re going to run into potentially a feed shortage situation.”

Could a fungus be the answer?

Dr Ian Newton is a senior entomologist with Queensland’s Department of Agriculture based at Mareeba, near Cairns.

He has been investigating the effectiveness of a naturally-occurring fungus that eats the grub from the inside out.

Dr Newton said while laboratory tests were promising, the pest would never be eradicated completely.

“The fungus is not going to be a silver bullet but these biological options would be a good tool because they are very specific and only kill the pest, not the beneficial insects including the pollinators,” he said.

“And they are keen and green, there’s no toxicity problems.”

Dr Newton said the Federal Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment had also approved the importation of the biopesticide, Fawligen, a naturally occurring caterpillar virus which specifically targets fall armyworm.

“The issue is it needs to be registered in Australia and, to do that, we need to prove that it works and it isn’t detrimental to people, so that is going to take some time.”

Dead grubs in petrie dish
A fungus has shown promising signs of killing the fall armyworm.(ABC Far North: Brendan Mounter)

However, he said that all was not lost.

“It’s here and we are going to have to live with it,” Dr Newton said.

“It’s seen as a bit of a crisis because it’s developed rapidly and we don’t have all the tools or all the knowledge to manage it, but I do believe we will manage it in the end.”

Elders and Maize Australia working on battling Fall armyworm threat

AS the threat of Fall armyworm continues to trend south, agronomists and industry bodies are exploring ways of limiting the pest’s potential damage.

Elders is among those on the frontlines and has enlisted the help of Toowoomba-based technical services manager Maree Crawford to help find an answer to the increasing threat.

Ms Crawford has so far found that drastic measures have failed to prevent damage, but a more integrated approach was preserving crop yields.

“This pest is a serious threat to some crops and there is a tendency for growers and advisors to overuse synthetic pyrethroids up front and this approach is not proving successful,” Ms Crawford said.

“Elders agronomists address Fall armyworm outbreaks in a very structured way, using an integrated pest management approach based on the individual circumstances.

“You have to take a lot of factors into account, like the weather, the lifecycle stage, the crop species and its risk profile, and the extent of the infestation.”

The research comes after Fall armyworm were discovered in a maize trial plot in Georgetown, northern Queensland in February.

Since then, the pest has been spotted in several locations in Queensland, as well as Hillston, Croppa Creek, Breeza, Forbes, Dubbo, Narrabri, Wee Waa, Maitland, Moree and Boggabilla in NSW.

“If you nuke everything, your not going to have the beneficals to clean up new egg lays and hatchings underneath the leaf where your sprays have failed to reach all of the Fall armyworms,” Ms Crawford said.

 Elders Toowoomba agronomist Matt Kenny checks one of the trapview units being used to monitor for early flights of Fall armyworm. Photo: Supplied

Ms Crawford said once the pest got past the past the 10mm-long third instar stage it was almost impossible to prevent large-scale crop damage and in turn it was crucial for farmers to spray in the evening.

“When they are transitioning from the third to the fourth instar, we find them inside the whorl of the plant,” she said.

“They cover themselves down in the whorl with frass, which is their waste, and the chemical can’t get to that, it just sits on top and doesn’t penetrate them.

“It’s critical to spray in the evening, when the largely nocturnal larvae are out feeding.

“It’s a bit of a concern but I think it is manageable with proactive, vigilant practices and the array of chemistry we’ve got access to, we can manage the pest in most crops and limit the damage.”

The threat has Maize Australia executive officer Liz Mann on high alert and urging growers to be vigilant.

“Fall armyworm is moving south and it is a bit of a concern,” Ms Mann said.

“I think it and other pests may be one of the biggest challenges facing producers this season.

“We know producers are usually right on top of these kinds of things and we’re hoping it won’t be too much of a factor ahead of the summer season.”

Fall armyworm update

Fall armyworm (Spodoptera frugiperda) has been detected in several new locations in southern and southwestern Queensland over the past week, at the Lockyer Valley, St George and Chinchilla. This follows the recent detection of fall armyworm in northern New South Wales at Moree and Boggabilla near the Queensland border.

This expansion of range from northern and central Queensland is not unexpected as fall armyworm is highly mobile, with long-distance migrations facilitated by favourable meteorological conditions.

Fall armyworm was initially detected on the Torres Strait islands of Saibai and Erub in January 2020. Since then it has also been reported from numerous sites in northern and central Queensland including Bamaga, Croydon, South Johnstone, Tolga, Lakeland, the Burdekin, Bowen, Bundaberg, Emerald, Richmond, Clermont, Biloela, Mackay and Longreach.

Fall armyworm has also been detected in the Northern Territory and northern Western Australia.

The Department of Agriculture and Fisheries (DAF), Queensland is working with industry to find ways to address the serious threat posed by the fall armyworm to Queensland’s agriculture industry. In conjunction with industry, DAF now manages a statewide network of over 50 pheromone traps, monitoring local fall armyworm activity–an early warning system for growers and agronomists. This trap data is updated weekly and is available on the Beatsheet website.

Producers who think that they may have come across fall armyworm are strongly encouraged to photograph and report suspect sightings to DAF on 13 25 23 or to their local biosecurity officer or extension officer.

For more information, including the potential impacts of this pest and management advice for key crops, visit

Fall armyworm makes it to NSW

Destructive agricultural pest fall armyworm is continuing its march south and has been detected for the first time in northern NSW.

A single fall armyworm moth was trapped near a sorghum crop between Moree and Boggabilla during routine surveillance by NSW Department of Primary Industries and Local Land Services.

NSW Agriculture Minister Adam Marshall urged farmers in the district to remain vigilant.

“This is the first known detection of the pest in NSW and its early detection will help minimise the impacts of fall armyworm,” Mr Marshall said.

“Farmers should monitor crops, particularly sorghum and maize, regularly for signs of fall armyworm damage, egg masses and larvae.

“Control weeds and volunteer plants in fallow paddocks, along fence lines and around buildings to reduce the number of pest hosts.”

Fall armyworm was first detected in Australia on two Torres Strait islands in January, before reaching the mainland at Bamaga in February.

Native to Central America, it can fly up to 500 kilometres and has spread quickly around the world.

The exotic pest has the potential to wipe out agricultural crops, and at the larval stage feeds on more than 350 plant species including cultivated grasses such as maize, rice, sorghum, sugarcane and wheat, as well as fruit and vegetable and cotton crops.

Plant Biosecurity Research Initiative Podcast: Fall Armyworm

The first series of PBRI Podcasts is on fall armyworm. It explores the experiences and observations of experts from around the globe and here in Australia as we prepare to take on this invasive pest.

Throughout the series, host Chris Brown delves into the biology and behaviour of fall armyworm and explores how we can best prepare ourselves to minimise its impact.

Episode 1: Fall armyworm biology and ecology in subtropical and temperate US

To understand how fall armyworm behaves in different parts of the US, and what this may mean for Australia, we spoke with two American researchers on their work over the past 30 years. Greg Nuessly from the University of Florida and Dominic Reisig from North Carolina State University discuss their work under subtropical conditions in southern Florida where it is a primary pest every year in the same crops, and in cool temperate conditions in North Carolina where it is more sporadic.

Episode 2: Applied fall armyworm management in row crops and pastures in Texas

Exploring the practical control strategies used in row crops and pastures across Texas, Extension specialist and IPM coordinator, David Kerns, from Texas A&M University talks about the different strains of FAW, the crops they effect and the tactics for control.

This podcast discusses the overseas use of chlorantraniliprole on sorghum for fall armyworm. This use is not approved in Australia – read note below under important information / pesticide disclaimer.

Please note that an emergency use permit application submitted for the use of chlorantraniliprole in sorghum to control fall armyworm was not approved by the APVMA. Further, the APVMA considered that the proposed use presented an undue risk to trade, based on information received in response to a Trade Advice Notice (TAN) and the trade assessment of the proposed use.

Episode 3: Active response to fall armyworm in South Africa

Working across governments, industry, languages and neighbouring countries was critical in minimise the impact of the fall armyworm outbreak in South Africa. Jan-Hendrik Venter, from South Africa’s Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, talks about the approach taken in response to their fall armyworm incursion in 2017.

Episode 4: FAO’s global action for fall armyworm control

On this podcast we speak to FAO’s Elisabetta Tagliati about the risks posed by fall armyworm to global food and feed security and FAO’s efforts to develop international capacity and capabilitiy to manage the pest across 65 countries under a Global Action Plan.

Episode 5 : Field observations of fall armyworm in northern Australia

Since the recent arrival of fall armyworm in Australia, scientists, growers and agronomists across the north have been on a steep learning curve. Home-grown entomologists Melina Miles and Paul Grundy from the Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries speak about their observations and thoughts on how the pest is behaving in Australia and the likely implications for management.

Episode 6: Footprints in the paddock – approaches to scouting, developing thresholds and tips to familiarise yourself with fall armyworm

We now have some valuable first-hand experience in dealing with fall armyworm in commercial crops in north Queensland. Burdekin agronomist Brent Wilson from Nutien Ag Solutions at Home Hill and GRDC Seed of Light recipient Paul McIntosh from Pulse Australia and the Australian Herbicide Resistance Initiative share their insights into the need to manage resistance, developing thresholds, identifying fall armyworm, and where to look for them.

Sclerotial Sett Rot Disease

SRA has published a new information sheet on our website on a recently identified disease of sugarcane – sclerotial sett rot (SSR).

SSR was first identified in 2016 at the SRA Woodford Pathology Farm on sugarcane setts sent for disease resistance screening trials. Up until now, it has not been reported anywhere else in the world. 

SSR affects sett germination and kills young plants, but it is unclear whether SSR is present in commercial sugarcane farming systems in Australia.

Information is currently being sought on whether SSR has been observed in commercial sugarcane crops in the Australian sugar industry.