Globalisation: saving Australia's crop protection fortress

IN SOME ways, the globalisation of science is helping maintain Australia's worldwide "crop protection fortress".

No longer just an investment by the Australian government and industry, half of the CSIRO Montpellier research centre's laboratory and office space is now leased to French, US and British-based agencies - supporting a core Australian research team of eight people.

To further exploit the unique opportunities of having an Australian lab in Europe, John Scott envisages new uses for the laboratories, such as:

  • a forward-research base to study bio-agents like new parasitoids of aphids, if Russian wheat aphid enters the Australian grain industry
  • an emergency base with the research infrastructure necessary for Australian specialists to 'hit the ground running' in urgent projects
  • an Australian centre for global crop science knowledge-gathering, as the CSIRO centre is a member of Agropolis, a French umbrella organisation that links agricultural scientists from several nations based in Montpellier
  • a potential research-oriented base for the Australian Quarantine Inspection Service (AQIS), and
  • a centre for collaboration with large international research teams in molecular biology.

However, the long-term future for the Montpellier laboratory has always been controversial in Australia's highly competitive public research-funding system.

Some scientists challenge the need for the French base, claiming there are more efficient crop protection systems than the search for bio-agents.

However, the introduction of just one successful suite of bio-controls for integration into the protection system of a major Australian crop would pay for more than a couple of decades of research at Montpellier.

Bio-controls in the Australian grain industry have included agents against narrow-leaf skeleton weed.

Other bio-control achievements of CSIRO's world network of laboratories include control of salvinia, water hyacinth, water lettuce, aquatic alligator weed, banana skipper, bread-fruit mealy bug, hops mite and dung beetles for control of bush flies.

Advances are being made into the control of Paterson's Curse, several thistle species and, more recently, bitou bush, bridal creeper, green vegetable bug and silverleaf whitefly.

The scientists say that, on behalf of the Australian grain industry, significant advances are being made at Montpellier toward a bio-agent from Tunisia against doublegee (three-cornered jack). This could work alongside the weevil released in 1996.

Globalisation will change Australia's international perspectives on crop protection in many ways - particularly where Australia is perceived by multinational corporations as having markets and crops too small to warrant their attention - and possibly even weakening their competitive position.

The CSIRO's Dr Scott sees the concept of freely-available and self-perpetuating bio-agents as part of maintaining Australia's competiveness in the international market.