The strain of Fall armyworm that has entered Australia has not yet been found to attack cotton, but has caused damage in maize crops, as documented by QLD DAF's Dr Paul Grundy.

International cross industry project to combat fall armyworm

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September 30, 2020

CRDC research partner CSIRO is leading a new international research project to understand and manage fall armyworm (FAW), with support from CRDC.

FAW is a global pest threatening crop production across South East Asia and Oceania, including Australia, after its detection here in February.

The project will provide a greater understanding of the pest’s genetic make-up and insecticide sensitivities to inform the most effective management strategies. This knowledge will help countries including Australia develop effective pest management plans across industries such as cotton and grains.

CSIRO researcher and project leader Dr Wee Tek Tay said FAW is capable of damaging various crops, including cotton, maize, sorghum, ginger and sugarcane. 

Historically, this pest has been classified as either rice-preferred or corn-preferred fall armyworm. However, recent genomic studies confirmed the presence of hybrids in both native and invasive ranges, highlighting significant knowledge gaps in our understanding of host crop preferences, especially in invasive populations.

“This particular species of armyworm has developed resistance to commonly used insecticides in other parts of the world, making management more difficult,” Tek said.

“It has spread rapidly since the first reported detection in Africa in 2016, across Asia and Africa and to Australia in early 2020, potentially carrying new insecticide resistance or feeding traits.

“The resistance status of the current incursion, potential for resistance to develop over time and the ongoing migration of FAW into Australia and the region may present significant challenges to agricultural industries.

“The more we know about this armyworm, its genetics and its response to insecticides, the better we can plan for effective management strategies.”

The project is co-invested by CRDC, Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research, the Grains Research and Development Corporation, FMC Australasia and Corteva Agriscience. It involves partner organisations in Indonesia, Vietnam, Lao PDR, Myanmar, Cambodia, Philippines, Malaysia and Uganda.

Dr Sarina Macfadyen, ACIAR’s Associated Research Program Manager for Farming Systems Analysis, said it was hoped the research activity will help develop the knowledge needed to guide individual country responses and facilitate co-ordinated actions.

“The team will focus on developing new knowledge in two areas; firstly, conducting a genetic characterisation of the similarities and differences in the populations found in Australia and South East Asia,” Sarina said. 

“The second area of research involves testing the insecticide sensitivities of these populations that may already show some level of resistance to commonly used products. 

“The team will look for genetic markers that, if present, may suggest some populations already carry mutations that make them able to withstand specific insecticides, and will conduct bioassays on live caterpillars exposed to different insecticide modes of action.

“This knowledge will feed into the development of resistance management plans by individual countries and inform insecticide recommendations to farmers.”

The spread of pests such as FAW through multiple countries and continents has increased dramatically in recent years. Globalisation, trade and climate change, as well as reduced resilience in production systems due to decades of agricultural intensification, may all have played a part.

“This co-investment brings together partners in government, RDCs, the private sector and the research community to address an immediate priority – the characterisation of FAW in Australia and South East Asia,” said Dr Jeevan Khurana, GRDC’s Manager Biosecurity who is co-ordinating the partnership. 

“The information generated will be an important component in the development of sustainable management strategies.”

CRDC R&D Manager Susan Maas said while there haven’t been any reports of impact on cotton to date, it is not yet known how the pest will behave in Australia.

“Given the genetic diversity of this pest and risk of future incursions, working with near neighbour countries will also provide insights into the risk of further incursions introducing change in host preference or different resistance profiles,” Susan said.

“This collaboration is a great opportunity to be on the front foot in terms of understanding baseline Bt and insecticide resistance as well as genetic characterisation.”

The research is due to run until the middle of 2021 with a final report of the findings to be published by CSIRO and ACIAR. 

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2020 edition of CRDC's Spotlight magazine.