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Disease blights sugar industry -

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Disease blights sugar industry

Reporter: Genevieve Hussey

KERRY O'BRIEN: Australian agriculture's vulnerability to disease has been highlighted again as
Queensland battles to contain an outbreak of the potentially devastating disease, sugarcane smut.
In an attempt to stop the disease spreading, 12 properties have now been quarantined in the
sugar-growing area around Childers in south-east Queensland. Scientists are now searching the cane
fields around Childers to determine just how far the disease has spread. With the cane crush about
to begin, this is a big blow to a troubled industry that's been looking forward to the highest
sugar prices for a decade. Genevieve Hussey reports.

JOHN RUSSO, CANEGROWER: The sugar industry is very resilient. We're always up for a challenge and
that's the life and nature of being a cane farmer.

GENEVIEVE HUSSEY: For John Russo, growing sugar cane is a way of life. His family runs some of
Australia's biggest cane plantations. They've been farming the area near Childers in south-east
Queensland for nearly 100 years. Last week, a check on the crop brought a horrifying discovery -
cane smut, a contagious fungus that spells disaster for cane growers.

JOHN RUSSO: Out of all of the east Queensland, all of the eastern seaboard of Australia, it had to
be found on our family farms first. So, yeah, we were devastated to hear the news. We went through
hell and back in the first few days.

GENEVIEVE HUSSEY: Sugar cane smut is an infectious disease that if allowed to spread, could destroy
Australia's lucrative sugar cane industry. The fungus attacks the stalk of the cane, causing a drop
in sugar production, particularly in hot, dry conditions.

ROB MAGAREY, RESEARCH SCIENTIST: It can actually stunt the cane till it actually becomes more like
a grass rather than a large cane crop. So after even two or three crops, you can have virtually no
yield.

CHRIS ADRIAANSEN, QLD DEPARTMENT OF PRIMARY INDUSTRIES: The disease itself can cause a reduction in
yield of up to 30 per cent. That's a very productive cane area in that Isis and Bundaberg mill
areas there, so yeah, the possible impost in terms of reduced production over the next couple of
years could be 10 or more millions of dollars there.

GENEVIEVE HUSSEY: John Russo's farm has now been quarantined. The cane is ready to harvest but
they're not allowed to cut it.

JOHN RUSSO: It is at a stand still. The crushing's been deferred a week and we've got a lot of
expensive machinery sitting idle.

GENEVIEVE HUSSEY: A disease control centre has been set up. Cane smut has now been found on 11
other properties. Its microscopic spores can be spread by the wind, they can also be carried into
uninfected areas on clothing, machinery and vehicles. Harvesting the cane and ploughing it in only
helps spread the disease.

ROB MAGAREY: It spreads very easily. It can spread both as wind-blown spores, so that there can be
showers of spores that spread right across the industry.

TREVOR WILCOX, QLD DEPARTMENT OF PRIMARY INDUSTRIES: Smut has moved across oceans in the past.
There's pretty good evidence that it moved from Africa to the Caribbean countries in the early
1970s. So it does move around.

GENEVIEVE HUSSEY: Before this outbreak, the east coast of Australia was one of only a few
commercial sugar cane growing areas in the world not affected by cane smut. But it's not the first
time cane smut has struck Australia. Eight years ago, the cane industry around the Ord River in
Western Australia was so widely infected, eradication wasn't an option. The industry there has had
to live with cane smut. Queensland is the country's biggest sugar producer and its ultimate goal is
to eradicate this disease.

ROB MAGAREY: To eradicate it is a difficult issue because you have to try and contain those spores.
And the further afield we find it, it's going to be much more difficult to try and eradicate it.
That is our current strategy, though, is control leading to elimination.

GENEVIEVE HUSSEY: Eleven of the twelve farms so far infected with cane smut are within a 15km
radius. The 12th property is further away but still connected by movement of plant material and
machinery.

TREVOR WILCOX: The spores do stain the soil for a period of time. So we'll have to be, you know,
continue inspection of those diseased farms for some years.

GENEVIEVE HUSSEY: Australian agriculture's vulnerability to pest incursions was highlighted last
year when citrus canker destroyed the mandarin industry near Emerald in Central Queensland. In the
case of citrus canker, a bitter battle over compensation erupted, with some growers were left
unhappy over the level of support. The sugar industry says it has a compensation plan in place with
federal, state government and industry contributing.

IAN BALLANTYNE, QLD CANEGROWERS' ASSOCIATION: It will cover the cost of the searches that we're
doing now. It will cover the cost of removing that cane and destroying it - if that's what has to
happen - and we are looking at the cost then of the re-establishment of the crop.

GENEVIEVE HUSSEY: There have been projected losses of up to $800 million for the industry, but only
if smut were to spread throughout the entire Queensland crop.

ALWYN HEIDKE, BUNDABERG CANEGROWERS' ASSOCIATION: If we cannot control it, there's going to be big
losses to the sugar industry and especially now we've moved through to a good prices, we really
were going the make the best of it.

GENEVIEVE HUSSEY: In the long term, the answer to battling cane smut lies in growing cane varieties
that are resistant to the disease.

TIM MULHERIN, QLD PRIMARY INDUSTRIES MINISTER: To breed a variety of cane takes 10-15 years, so
it's not something you can pick off shelf and say, "We've got a problem, let's plant this."

GENEVIEVE HUSSEY: Scientists are optimistic that Australia is close to that goal. The main problem
with resistant plants has been lower sugar yield.

ROB MAGAREY: Each year, we've been selecting better and better resistant varieties and using them
as parents. So it will only be a short period of time before our resistant canes are actually
high-yielding and some of the best that we have.

GENEVIEVE HUSSEY: While the science moves forward, John Russo is contemplating his farm's future.
He'd like to start harvesting his cane and hopes eventually, he'll be able to.

JOHN RUSSO: It's a huge blow. We've got through rust, through Fiji disease but this is probably the
daddy of them all. We cannot afford to delay any longer.