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.”

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