Food security using science to protect harvests from insect pests
Every year between a quarter and a third of the worldwide grain harvest is lost. Much of that loss is due to insect pests. The ability to control these pests cheaply and effectively is critical for food security and the grain industry. The most common method to combat these insects is the fumigation of stored grain with phosphine gas, a cheap and effective method of control. However, poor fumigation practices can lead to phosphine resistance, a big problem as there is no good alternative to phosphine. The development of effective fumigation practices requires an understanding of the physiology of target insects and their response to phosphine.
Australia-India Strategic Research Fund
A team of Australian researchers led by Professor Gimme Walter at The University of Queensland worked to ensure that Australia’s ability to control grain insect pests is as good as it can be. With support from the Australia-India Strategic Research Fund, they teamed up with a group of Indian partners, led by Professor Chandrasekaran Subramaniam from the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University, to fast-track their work.
Together these researchers have: conducted the first national survey of phosphine resistance in the world; validated affordable, sustainable, and environmentally safe pest control methods using phosphine; developed genetic tests to allow cheap and quick identification of phosphine-resistant insect populations for remediation; and discovered that phosphine-resistant insects are less likely to disperse by flight than susceptible ones, a development with implications for effective and efficient national fumigation strategies. Their collaboration has allowed both countries to improve their food security, grain marketability, and biosecurity.
This project has also made significant contributions to the modernisation of India’s postharvest management capabilities. Beyond developing methods and strategies that reduce costs and postharvest losses, this project has been critical to the establishment of the Indian Grain Storage Working Group (IGSWG). The IGSWG is a combination of government, research and industry representatives that directly link research capability and outcomes with industry need. The Australian team continues to be involved and is contributing to the development of a National Integrated Pest and Resistance Management Strategy.
The collaboration has also had unique benefits for Australia. Working with India gave the Australian researchers ready access to enough resistant insects to undertake ecological research on them. According to Professor Walter, “the abundance of grain pest insects in India allowed us to test things we could never have tested in Australia". Moreover, the insects being studied in India are potential exotic pests for Australia. Thanks to this collaboration, the team led by Professor Walter has been able to provide key information to Australia’s border protection authorities, helping them detect and destroy exotic pests at the border and strengthening Australia’s biosecurity.
Their work means that the grain industries in India and Australia can now respond quickly to the development of phosphine resistance in insect pests, reduce the levels of resistance in these populations, and extend the life of phosphine as a cheap, effective, and environmentally friendly pest control fumigant.
Australian Team Leader:
Professor Gimme Walter, University of Queensland
Indian Team Leader:
Professor Chandrasekaran Subramaniam, Tamil Nadu Agricultural University