Researchers are working on ways to produce better looking bananas – and fungus could be the key.
James Cook University scientists Dr Tobin Northfield and honours student Amy McGuire will use a fungus found in soil to combat rust thrips.
“Rust thrips are tiny insects that feed on leaves and developing bananas. This produces a rust-coloured scarring that becomes more apparent as the banana grows. The rust thrips don’t affect the eating quality of the banana, but they cause them to be downgraded and sell for less,” said Dr Northfield.
The JCU team will look at the Beauveria bassiana fungus, commonly found in soil and known to infect and kill thrips. The focus of this study is to see if the fungus can be cultured and applied as a biopesticide.
“The first thing we’ll do is to conduct surveys and investigate where this fungus naturally occurs on farms. This will help identify where the fungus will be most effective,” said Ms McGuire.
The scientists will then examine farm-collected strains of the fungus in the lab, and evaluate its effectiveness on thrips also collected from the farm.
“In addition to directly testing the effect of fungus on thrips, we’ll run molecular analyses to get an estimate of fungus prevalence in the soil. We will also estimate the densities of thrips and their natural enemies on the plants to see if they correspond to natural fungus levels,” said Ms McGuire.
Dr Northfield said there are many advantages of using natural predators against thrips rather than chemical sprays.
“Using natural biological control instead of chemical pesticides reduces environmental impacts by conserving beneficial organisms. If we can maintain the fungus on the farm it may be more economically sustainable and reduce management costs,” said Dr Northfield.
The project is being funded in part by Frank and Dianne Sciacca of Pacific Coast Eco Bananas, the innovators of the red wax-tipped ‘ecoganic’ banana. Matched funding is also provided by an AusIndustry grant.
The patented Ecoganic farming system doesn’t use insecticides, miticides and nematicides on the soil, and significantly reduces herbicides and fungicides to a level that the ecosystem is functional and is able to increase its production of organic carbon.
Frank Sciacca said they initiated the project because of the need to find environmentally friendly solutions to pest problems.
“It is so exciting to find a natural solution to an industry problem, that can drive costs down and increase our competitiveness within the marketplace. Healthy farms and healthy waterways are vital for the survival of the GBR which is currently under threat. Ecoganic is about the continual innovation of non-chemical solutions to solve imbalances created by conventional farming,” said Mr Sciacca.
The trial is expected to conclude by early 2019.