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.”

Bundaberg farmers raise $1 Million for Paradise Dam class action

Wide Bay farmers and business owners have raised $1 Million to fund a class action against the Queensland Government and Sunwater.

This comes two weeks since the class action over the remediation of Paradise Dam was ramped up, after revelations farmers in the Bundaberg region could be facing historically low water allocations before July.

The troubled Dam has been in the headline since September 2019 when Sunwater announced they would be releasing 100 000 ML from the Dam, in order to lower the wall of the dam, due to safety concerns.

An independent review into the root cause of Paradise Dam’s structural and stability issues in May last year found the dam’s primary spillway apron width to be ‘completely inadequate’.

 Bundaberg growers who are dependent on water from the Bundaberg Irrigation Scheme have held recent meetings to discuss plans for fast tracking the class action. Picture: Sunwater

 Bundaberg growers who are dependent on water from the Bundaberg Irrigation Scheme have held recent meetings to discuss plans for fast tracking the class action. Picture: Sunwater

The Bundaberg region farming community has engaged with one of the world’s leading dam safety experts, Dr Paul Rizzo, to provide a second opinion on the future of the dam.

Tom Marland, Marland Law, is leading the class action on behalf of the farmers.

Mr Marland said after a number of shed meetings held throughout the region recently, farmers have raised over a million dollars to fund a class action.

“The support for this class action has been overwhelming actually,” Mr Marland said.

“I think the recent news from Sunwater that the dam is expected to be empty by the end of June this year has really galvanised this farming community into action.”

 Bundaberg lawyer Tom Marland, Marland Law, said the class action focused on the alleged negligent management of Paradise Dam and misleading conduct by the Queensland government.

Local farmers have had averages of 85 per cent water allocations from Paradise Dam in the past, but growers are now fearing that could drop significantly to 30 per cent.

It is feared Paradise Dam could be empty by the end of July 2021, unless the catchment receives serious rainfall, sending shock waves through the local farming community.

Mr Marland said restoring the dam is paramount to the Wide Bay community.

“After endless delays from the State Government and no news on the horizon about the dam’s future, farmers really see no other choice but to take the State Government to court for losses and damages associated with their decision to lower Paradise Dam,” he said.

“Based on the losses we’re measuring, we expect this class action to be in the Billions.

“At the end of the day, farmers don’t want a cheque from the government, they want water”

The Queensland Government and Sunwater would not comment on any potential legal proceedings.

Marland Law is aiming to have documents filed by the end of May and will be seeking the first court hearings in June 2021.

Sugarcane and the Creation of Carbon-Negative Hydrogen

Professor Damien Batstone speaks to AZoCleantech about his game-changing research on how sugarcane can be used as a clean energy source to produce hydrogen.

What drove your research into sugarcane as a clean energy source to create hydrogen?

We had previously researched the conversion of sugarcane into alternative products (such as biopolymers) and found this to be highly favorable economically. Whereas sugar production utilizes bagasse as thermal energy, this is a residue when making biopolymers, liquid sugar, or ethanol. This residue can then be used for electricity generation or alternative energy products such as hydrogen.

What makes sugarcane a suitable resource that could revolutionize hydrogen production?

We are using the bagasse fraction, as the juice fraction can be utilized elsewhere (e.g., for ethanol or biopolymer production). Very few other crops result in such a huge and relatively reliable amount of biomass, making it ideal for large-scale hydrogen production.

Can you explain the processes your team has used in its research?

We investigated two technologies. Thermal gasification is a dry process and is carried out at a high temperature. The bagasse is dried, and then incomplete combustion results in a mixture of gases, which further react to hydrogen and carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide is extracted (and may be captured for storage), leaving the hydrogen as a product. We also investigated hydrothermal gasification, which is a similar reaction, but at high pressure and in wet conditions. This avoids needing to dry the bagasse before processing.

Would the use of sugarcane to make hydrogen be a costly process? Could this technology be adopted on a much larger scale?

Based on our economic analysis, the process can make hydrogen at $1.5-$3/kg, which is a lower cost than any other form of non-fossil hydrogen. It can be made at an even lower cost if we do not produce the hydrogen at high pressure. This technology is only applicable at a larger scale (500+ t bagasse per day), and we have evaluated up to 2500 t bagasse per day. For reference, the lower scale is a moderate-sized sugar mill, while 2500 t/d is the largest-sized sugar mill.

What happens to the carbon dioxide produced during production?

It is currently separated from hydrogen as a sour gas stream (which also includes sulfides). This can either be geo-stored or used industrially.

This research offers the potential for positive environmental benefits if adopted on a larger scale. Please can you explain this in more detail?

It represents a sustainable source of low-cost hydrogen while offering the ability to fix the carbon-dioxide for industrial use or long-term storage.

How would cane growers benefit from this alternative pathway for the industry?

Cane growers and mills are highly exposed to world commodity sugar pricing, with the cost of production often exceeding sugar prices. Producing alternative products from juice (such as biopolymers or fuel) while processing the bagasse into hydrogen provides improved profitability. A hydrogen production hub also provides improved regional benefits, including an industrial base and employment.

Why is this research important for the wider hydrogen production industry?

As an important future energy carrier and major industrial input, continuity and diversity of non-fossil hydrogen production is essential. The only other major source of non-fossil hydrogen is renewable electricity, which is subject to spot pricing fluctuations and variation in supply. We also produce it at a far lower cost and potentially at a larger scale than electrolytic hydrogen.

Why is hydrogen important for the future of converting unusable energy? How does this research project fit into this?

Hydrogen converts electricity and otherwise unusable energy to a highly versatile, clean, chemical energy source. It is the best way to decarbonize the industrial chemical ecology, including clean metallurgy, vehicle fuels (conventional and emerging, including hydrogen directly), fertilizer, plastics, and commodity chemicals. It can even be used to make food. While it can be transported, as a highly compressed gas or liquid, or as liquid ammonia, one of the best ways to use it is to connect a hydrogen producer directly to the end-user.

What challenges have you faced during your research and how were these overcome?

The technology is relatively conventional, given it has been used in coal gasification for over a century, and some challenges (e.g., the formation of toxic byproducts) are mitigated by the clean nature of bagasse. Key challenges relating to the high-pressure process included the limited availability of materials capable of withstanding high temperatures and pressures. This increased the cost of the hydrothermal process substantially. We also found that the need to compress hydrogen for sale was an economically limiting factor.

How can farmers and sugar companies go about applying the research findings to their businesses in the future?

A future project will be large in scale and will involve the direct involvement of growers, sugar companies, and likely end-users. It will also include governments investing in a hydrogen economy, incentivizing the industry, and improving the sugar industry’s economic sustainability.  Sugar companies are already assessing the technology, and farmers should assess future technologies and product streams.

What are the next steps for the project?

A position paper is being produced in Q1 2021, which will present the study’s aggregate outcomes and be made publicly available. Outcomes from the work are currently being provided to sugar companies.

About Damien Batstone

Professor Damien Batstone leads environmental biotechnology and resource recovery research programs at The Advanced Water Management Centre, The University of Queensland, Australia. Research work has focused on renewable energy from biomass, the production of commodity chemicals from renewable sources, and the water-energy-food nexus, including the production of novel feeds for aquaculture from gases such as hydrogen. He coordinated the final year undergraduate chemical engineering design course at UQ from 2017-2020, in which 150-200 students design a novel process from concept to final design. The 2020 design challenge was hydrogen from bagasse.

Reef health improving as farmers reduce fertiliser use

The need for draconian reef regulations being forced on the agricultural sector has been called into question following the release of a reef health report.

The Reef Water Quality Report Card 2019, released last week, shows dissolved inorganic nitrogen rates on the reef had dropped by more than 25 per cent since 2013.

Farmers in the Wet Tropics and Burdekin regions were the main contributors to water quality improvements in 2018-2019.

Queensland Environment and Great Barrier Reef Minister Meaghan Scanlon said improved farming practices, backed by federal and state government programs, had contributed to the result.

“The overall reduction in dissolved inorganic nitrogen, the reef’s highest risk marine pollutant, was 4.3 per cent in the 2018-2019 year alone,” Ms Scanlon said.

“The cumulative reduction of 25.5 per cent since 2013 is positive for the future of the reef.

“Sugar cane and banana growers in the Wet Tropics and Burdekin regions were the main contributors to 2018-2019 result with improvements in chemical fertiliser and irrigation use.

“Yet we must continue this trajectory.

“It has been pleasing to hear of increased compliance with 2019 reef protection laws which introduced chemical, erosion and other practice standards.”

But North Queensland-based Senator Susan McDonald used the results to slam the state government for ‘ramming through’ tougher reef regulations in 2019, saying the latest water quality results showed improvement had been happening for years.

“This drop in nitrogen runoff didn’t happen overnight, and it has to be pointed out that the results are from 2019, the same year Labor decided to ignore evidence and submissions from farming groups to make agriculture the scapegoat for reef water quality,” Ms McDonald said.

“This report is proof of what farmers had been saying all along: that they had been improving land use methods without the need for draconian new laws.”

Ms McDonald was instrumental in establishing a Senate Inquiry into the evidence used by the Queensland government to impose harsh water quality targets on cane and cattle farmers, which found runoff affected just 3 per cent of the total Great Barrier Reef area.

“We now have confirmation of what the Senate Inquiry found which was that the new laws wouldn’t have a significant impact on water quality because the work is already being done.

“The most recent legislative changes are now revealed as unnecessary overreach that ignored what farmers were saying.

“This report is compelling enough for the state Labor government to repeal the ridiculous new restrictions and trust that farmers are good custodians of the land and are quite capable of improving their practices without being demonised as reef killers.”

Hinchinbrook MP Nick Dametto said the Burdekin and Wet Tropics regions recorded the largest increase in best practice nutrient management for sugar cane, up 6.3 per cent and 6.1 per cent respectively.

Mr Dametto said the report card showed the draconian reef regulations were not needed and said he was drafting a bill to have them repealed.

“Farmers are the real environmentalists when it comes to looking after the land,” Mr Dametto said.

“They don’t need Brisbane bureaucrats breathing down their necks like Big Brother telling them what they can or can’t do.”

Fix needed for regional councils funding

Despite significant challenges, from a protracted drought to rising input costs, burdensome government regulations and most recently, a global pandemic, the state’s 24,000 farm businesses have continued to feed, clothe, and provide amenity to Queenslanders, Australians and many others around the world. However, farmers in the Bundaberg region have received little thanks for their continued hard work, instead receiving increases of up to 235 per cent, or as much as $30,000, in their rates notices this year. They were further dismayed when the Bundaberg Regional Council released its 2019-20 Annual Report which showed an operating surplus of $1.5 million.

The Bundaberg farmers have been very clear that they are not asking other ratepayers to cover rural ratepayers’ share, nor are they suggesting that they are disadvantaged by the increase in rural land valuations. However, they are asking for transparent and equitable rates. The state government could regulate to make rates and charges resolutions more flexible after which the Bundaberg Council could apply a concession to the whole of Category 9 (farmland) under Sections 119-122 of the Local Government Regulation 2012. Moreover, prior to the dissolution of the Queensland parliament a regulatory amendment providing extra powers for additional decisions about levying of rates and charges for 2020-2021 financial year was made. However, while the head of power was introduced, the necessary regulation to implement section 94A has not been made. This must be done as a priority.

QFF acknowledges the financial sustainability of local governments across Queensland continues to be a challenge with increasing community demand for services, population fluctuations and rising costs associated with maintenance and renewal of ageing infrastructure. In February 2020, the Queensland Audit Office reported to parliament that over half of Queensland councils spend more than they earn.

With a new Minister for Local Government this is an ideal time to fix what are complex issues. QFF is calling on the Queensland government to review the rates approaches and safeguards of other Australian jurisdictions with a view to creating a fairer funding model for regional councils as well as a review of the effectiveness of protections for all rate payers. Additionally, we encourage the Local Government Association of Queensland to ensure a level of predictability in the rates levied on parcels of land and businesses, and compulsory compliance with the principles set out in the State Government’s Guideline on Equity and Fairness in Rating for Queensland Local Governments.

Bundaberg farmers say council rates rise too high, adding to crippling operating costs

In a landscape where the cost of farming is increasing, growers say they’re struggling to cope with Bundaberg Regional Council’s hefty rates rise.

Charles Grima, who has farmed sugarcane and sweet potatoes for decades, has had one of the area’s highest increases in rates.

Previously his net half-yearly payment was $1,704 and now it’s $5,771 — a rise of more than 238 per cent.

“Farmers don’t have a guaranteed income; one year we can make a lot of money and the next year we’re lucky to break even,” he said.

“If we’re not allowed to keep some of the money from good years, you’re struggling to survive.”

Area category 9 rates — rural properties — faced hikes of between 1 and 238 per cent following increased land valuations by the State Government.

Council will take an income of almost $10 million solely from this rate category during this financial year, making up more than 12 per cent of their total budget.

This is an increase of more than $2 million from last year.

Out of the 1,796 properties in this category, only 16 will see a decrease in rates.

‘It just kills you’

Mr Grima said that in all the time he’d spent farming, he’d never seen such a severe rate rise.

“It turns everybody from the land — my son is the last generation in farming because of costs,” he said.

“My grandkids will not be farmers after they see what their parents and grandparents go through.

“It just kills you.”

Glenn Pressler, who grows cane and runs cattle on a 30-hectare property in Windermere, said his rates bill had tripled.

“It’s a fairly large increase — it’s gone from $600 to about $1800 for six months,” Mr Pressler said.

“It’s just wrong — you can’t sustain that huge rise.”

Mr Pressler said the rate rise contributed to the cost of farming becoming unsustainable.

“Everything is going up in price, input costs are going up and we’re getting less from our produce and the weather isn’t very good for us — we’re in drought conditions,” he said.

“You just can’t afford to keep going on like that.”

Bundaberg Regional Council has defended its decision for the rate rise.

In a statement to the ABC, a spokesman said the impact of COVID-19 on council’s budget had forecast a $2.8 million reduction in revenue (from the airport, Moncrieff and holiday parks) and a $5.2 million deficit.

He said individual landholders could apply for hardship relief. To do so, he said, they would need to provide evidence of financial difficulty, but farm lobby groups had provided no evidence of general hardship across the entire agricultural category.

Council’s forward plan is to keep rate increases aligned with the CPI.