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Now New Australian Technology to Combat Fruit Fly Outbreaks

Chander Mohan
Chander Mohan

An Israeli company says it has developed a no-spray, environment-friendly solution that can protect Indian farmers from the deadly oriental fruit fly, which has destroyed 300 fruit species in India.

The Oriental Fruit Fly (Bactrocera dorsalis) is considered to be the most destructive, invasive and widespread of all fruit flies, and is also a menace in 65 other countries in Asia, Africa and the Americas.

In Kenya, a solution to counter the menace of fruit flies rampant among small holder farmers is now available. Dubbed the Fruit Fly Mania, this protein bait is made from brewer’s yeast was developed through the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology. (ICIPE) research, and is being commercially produced for farmers, by Kenya Biologics.

As part of the plan to control the pest, Hort Innovation teamed up with other stakeholders including state governments and research institutes. After some international collaboration it was decided that a facility would need to be built that was capable of producing 50 million sterile males a week, which was established in Port Augusta. Millions of specially bred sterile fruit flies were released in South Australia this month in an attempt to stop wild flies breeding and eventually reduce the numbers of the Queensland Fruit Fly, which is native only to Australia as disseminated in the Fresh Plaza.

Scientists hope to know by as early as next season whether Australia's new Sterile Insect Technology (SIT) is an effective weapon in controlling fruit fly outbreaks.

"SIT is a technique where you want to use all other methods to smash the fruit fly population where there is an outbreak and the coup de gras is swamping them with steriles," Hort Innovation CEO John Lloyd said. "So there are very few wild females available, and when you swamp them with steriles, you overwhelm what small population there is after all the other methods have been carried out."

Mr Lloyd says this research has attracted wide spread interest across the industry, as there has been a number of outbreaks in horticulture production areas that have not previously had the pest.

"There has been some outbreaks in South Australia, and there have been some well publicised outbreaks in Tasmania, which is of great concern because Tasmania has always been considered as fruit fly free," he said. "The big breakthroughs that we have had is around the standalone research we have done around diet. We are the first country to move from a stockfeed based diet, or a mash, to a pure gel based diet, which is much more efficient."

This release was only in South Australia, and discussions are taking place with the Tasmania Government around the use of the Sterile Insect Technology.

“In the case of South Australia, steriles have been used there before and I don't think anyone will see anything until next season, because you have got to wait for whatever flies may have survived, traditional treatments and steriles over winter and see if they come out again."

Mr Lloyd adds that this new technology could be a major game changer for the horticulture industry, with fruit flies one of the biggest barriers to trade. Not only does the fruit fly cause domestic losses, but non-infected fruit that is grown in the area is prevented from being exported because of the risks associated with it. 

Australia is on the cusp of many new export opportunities, but in most cases protocols have to be met, and Hort Innovation says it can prove costly for growers and producers.

"Apart from tariffs, the fruit fly is the number one barrier to trade and at a high cost we are ensuring that we remain fruit fly free," he said. "We are uniquely positioned in the world, with 400-500 air freight capable flights leaving Australian capitals each week going to Asia, capable of taking instant fresh produce to enter the stores tomorrow. So the opportunity is huge, and while there are other pests to worry about, fruit fly is the biggest."

While the sterile fly numbers are not at 50 million yet, Hort Innovation says there are still a number of areas that need further development. It is still working on developing a male only strain, as the current release that includes sterilised females is less efficient. But Mr Lloyd says the feedback from growers is that they are relieved that there is light at the end of the tunnel.

"If we can get this technology right, if we can move to a male only line in the first instance, then they have a very powerful tool," he said. "Not only to defend areas that are currently free of fruit fly but also roll fruit fly out of areas that have become infested. But it's still early days."

Plans are also underway to introduce the female self-limiting gene into the Mediterranean fruit fly, which has affected areas of Western Australia.

"We are at the start of a long journey here, and from a technology perspective, there are some tremendously exciting developments we are looking at," Mr Lloyd said.

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