Posts Tagged ‘ Agricultural ’

Issue 104: Biocontrol is Good Agricultural Practice

January/February 2009
Authors: Stephen Goodwin & Marilyn Steiner

Some of the 40,000ha of greenhouse industry in the Almeria region, Spain.

©2008 Google – Imagery ©2008 TerraMetrics

Reproduced with special permission Google Earth

Biocontrol has emerged as an essential component of Good Agricultural Practice (GAP1) in greenhouse vegetable crop production, as food safety establishes itself as the key driver in the supply chain. In this article we offer a snapshot of recent movements in the world of biocontrol and greenhouse vegetable food production. Food safety may be king, but biocontrol is the loyal servant for greenhouse producers to deliver this goal to Australian consumers. While Australian growers may not have quite the same abundance of biocontrol agents commercially available to overseas greenhouse vegetable producers, there are distinct signs of improvement and excitement about future prospects. By Stephen Goodwin & Marilyn Steiner

Biocontrol has come a long way
In the early period of biocontrol development and use, biologically based Integrated Pest Management (IPM) was simply regarded as a possible alternative to pesticides that would overcome pesticide resistance problems. This is a justifiable reason for anyone to consider trying this new approach and many greenhouse vegetable growers did. The number of biocontrol agents commercially produced for greenhouse crop use has expanded dramatically since the appearance of the two foundation species, Encarsia formosa for greenhouse whitefly, and Phytoseiulus persimilis for two-spotted mite, back in the 1970s. In a 2000 survey, 29 biocontrol agents were identified as in common use against 19 key pest species in Canada2. This is typical of experiences in Europe and elsewhere. These are produced by a number of companies worldwide, including the Dutch company Koppert; and Biobest (Belgium); Syngenta Bioline and BCP-Certis (UK); Bio-Bee (Israel); Applied Bionomics (Canada), and others. Interestingly, the first to recognise the commercial opportunities of biocontrol were the greenhouse growers, the Kopperts in The Netherlands and the Buntings in the UK. Thirty years later, the annual global turnover in biocontrol agent sales (producers and distributors) is estimated at AUD$74 million.

What was going on in Australia during this time? In 1999, we brought a number of biocontrol specialists to Australia for a series of interstate workshops to showcase IPM developments in protected cropping overseas. One of those speakers was Karel Bolckmans, Director of R&D with Koppert Biological Systems, who had this to say about biocontrol then3:

“Biological pest control is well established in European greenhouse vegetable production, and has been the cornerstone of IPM for the last 30 years, (and) that as well as its environmental benefits, IPM adoption has given European growers significant savings in labour and costs.”

Mr Bolckmans explained “that biological control isn’t (about) total control of pests, but rather effective management of the pests, a concept with which growers need to become familiar. There is,” he said, “an ‘acceptable level’ of pests in certain crops – for instance a tomato plant can lose a third of its leaves to leaf miner, without the crop being affected.

“It is essential,” Mr Bolckmans said, “for growers to keep records, which show insect patterns over a year, and in which parts of the greenhouse, pest outbreaks start. Critical to the successful use of biological control agents is the timing and method of release.”

According to Mr Bolckmans, ”biological control without some form of chemical control is almost impossible, but it is possible to use low toxicity sprays, such as spray oils, insecticidal soaps and garlic preparations. Spraying technique and timing are very important, and it’s useful to detect ‘trouble spots’ in the house, since these can often be spot-treated with sprays.”

Mr Bolckmans said that “introducing IPM to a greenhouse enterprise is quite complex and cannot be done without technical support.” Echoing the comments of the other speakers, he said that “for growers converting from chemicals alone to IPM, it’s a case of ‘weaning off’, not going cold turkey.”

We like to think these speakers whetted the appetite of Australian growers and others for biocontrol as there was increased interest both from growers and producers of biocontrol agents. Despite this, development of this industry has been slower than elsewhere, due mainly to the lesser demand for its products by the relatively small greenhouse industry. Of the 10 local producers, Biological Services in Loxton, SA, is the leading national supplier to the protected cropping industry, with seven products available and others planned. In New Zealand there are two biocontrol producers that have only a small range of biocontrol agents, but service a greater area. New Zealand has bumblebees ( Bumblebees are sensitive to many pesticides, so biocontrol becomes an imperative.

As with many things, it can take a disaster or some other event of similar magnitude, to capture peoples’ attention. These events can have the effect of ‘forcing’ action, as opposed to under normal conditions drawing the curious or more knowledgeable who seek to be ahead of the pack, to adopt change. The former usually results in larger scale change acting faster, which is what biocontrol needs right now in this industry in Australia, but what might ‘force’ this to happen here? Overseas, there are some recent examples of major impacts that have forced changes to the perception of biocontrol.

Good and bad impacts can benefit biocontrol
Marketing Advantages in Biocontrol and IPM
Food safety is the main driver of IPM in on-farm practices and the key non-price concern in international food retailing4. It provides a strong incentive for the adoption of IPM and biocontrol particularly in the protected cropping industry. There are market benefits to be had. The European wholesaling conglomerate, The Greenery, the largest producer group in Europe with 1,500 Dutch producers and more than 1,000 suppliers overseas, recognised the marketing advantages of embracing IPM and GLOBALGAP5 in their business.

The Greenery label guarantees food-safety as its highest priority. To be marketed under the The Greenery label, fresh produce must meet the minimum requirements of the national MRL6 of the country of destination, contain no traces of illegal compounds, and meet minimum GLOBALGAP standards. Failure to comply means rejection of produce. To achieve this The Greenery encourages IPM practices. Extensive pesticide residue analysis is conducted by The Greenery and its suppliers as the basis for produce acceptance. Major retail clients include the UK supermarkets TESCO and SAINSBURYS.

However, the different specific non-regulatory demands of retailers can be a problem, for example, the German supermarket ALDI has set a maximum number of active compounds per product group, a maximum of 80% of the sum of MRLs and a maximum of 80% of the sum of the ARfDs7, whereas another German supermarket REWE, has set a maximum of 70% of the MRL per active compound and a maximum ARfD per active compound. The Greenery put in place a program of pesticide reduction during 2007-09, with IPM having a central role in the introduction of greater sustainability and residue reduction amongst cooperating growers.

Any grower who wants to be GLOBALGAP certified, will need to produce according to GAP. While IPM8 is in the GAP guidelines, it is not strongly stated. Currently, there are not very strong initiatives to reduce pesticide usage to levels below the official Maximum Residue Limits.

Pesticide Scandal in Spain
In a recent interview9, Karel Bolckmans confirmed that greenhouse vegetables were still the main market for the biocontrol industry. In both Northern Europe and North America, practically all greenhouse vegetable growers are using biocontrol. However, between 2000 and 2005, the industry stagnated. The market for biocontrol agents was saturated; there were no outstanding new products on the horizon. During that period, Koppert and some other companies such as Syngenta-Bioline tried very hard to open up the market in Southern Europe (Mediterranean), without much success.

Protected cropping existing cheek by jowl with coastal suburbia in Almeria region, Spain.

Capsicums grown in the Almeria region, Spain, were the source of the pesticide scandal in 2006.

Capsicum is the main crop grown in 40,000ha of greenhouses in Almeria region, Spain.

The biocontrol programs of Northern Europe initially introduced there were found to be unsuitable in the extended periods of hotter temperatures and greater pest pressures of this area. Then, in 2005, Koppert launched a new product called Amblyseius swirskii (Swirskii)10, a predatory mite mainly for whitefly control, and this created new possibilities in the Mediterranean and Israel. Interestingly, Swirskii has similar characteristics to the Australian native predatory mite Transeius montdorensis, originally developed by the authors at the Gosford Horticultural Institute and now sold in Australia by the Beneficial Bug Company at Richmond. Besides being a good predator, a new off-plant rearing method has enabled the large numbers needed to be reared cost-effectively, and opened the way for similar mass-rearing methodology to deliver other key predatory mite species into the market place.

Richard GreatRex, field development manager, Syngenta Bioline, UK, Dan Papacek, Bugs for Bugs, Mundubbera and one of the authors,

Marilyn Steiner, checking a Spanish capsicum crop for predators, particularly Swirskii.

It has become clear now how much Swirskii has completely altered the IPM landscape in Southern Europe and Israel, providing greater opportunities for greenhouse vegetable producers, but this wasn’t the reason for the upsurge in the adoption of biocontrol. There was another reason that ‘forced’ the adoption of IPM to greater heights.

In 2006, Greenpeace published a detailed report on the pesticide residues in fruit and vegetables in German supermarkets. In the German supermarket LIDL, produce from the Almeria region in Spain was found to contain residues of an illegal pesticide not permitted for use in the EU. This was the sensational headline, but Greenpeace also found, across supermarkets representing 75% of the German market, that 2% of fruit and vegetable samples contained pesticide residues above the acute reference dose ARfD and residues of three or more pesticides in 44% of samples.

Low technology greenhouses abound in Almeria region, Spain.
Note greenhouses perched on the hillside in the background.

The Spanish press reported that 30% of peppers exported from Spain contained traces initially of the illegal pesticide isophenfos-methyl, and later isocarbophos11, both chemicals imported from China. The residues were not detected at a level that might pose a possible risk to people who consumed the peppers. Nonetheless, some UK and German supermarkets switched to Israeli and Turkish imports, sending shockwaves through the Spanish protected vegetable industry in the Almeria region. Overnight, it triggered a 1,500ha reduction in the area of peppers in Almeria. Fifteen people were arrested in Spain and 4,000kg of illegal pesticide seized. This food scandal quickly caused a turnaround in the mentality of the Spanish growers and authorities, forcing the vast majority of growers to switch to IPM employing biocontrol agents. EU supermarkets demanded ‘residue-free’ produce.

The majority of the Spanish vegetables on which Greenpeace found residues of illegal pesticides were either GLOBALGAP certified or certified under some other quality scheme. This was a shock to European supermarkets. As a result, GLOBALGAP convened a working group to develop stronger IPM guidelines. It will probably be 2009 before they are fully functional and it is anticipated that they will have a considerable impact when released9.

Since the eruption of the pesticide scandal, there has been a dramatic increase in the adoption of biocontrol in pepper crops, the main crop of the region, to 7,000ha. This was in no small part due to Spanish government subsidies available for 50% of the cost of biocontrol purchases through marketing organisations. Koppert, Syngenta-Bioline, Biobest and BCP-Certis are all active in this rapidly expanding market, scrambling to meet the sudden upsurge in demand for biocontrol products. BCP-Certis reported good control in the 2007 season by Swirskii (whitefly predator), Orius laevigatus (thrips predator) and Eretmocerus mundus (whitefly parasitoid), with pest levels remaining low throughout the season, and later pest influxes well-controlled by established populations of biocontrol agents. The Spanish greenhouse industry was ‘forced’ into wholesale adoption of biocontrol as their markets dried up, but the interesting fact is that biocontrol was clearly shown to work on a large scale, in a traditionally pesticide-dependent industry.

Pesticide Scandal in China
Closer to home, China has recently been in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons. Recent melamine-contaminated milk products have occupied the news, but earlier in 2006, the same year that Greenpeace exposed the Spanish pesticide scandal, it was also busy conducting pesticide residue testing of vegetables produced in China. It was reported that some of the vegetables sold in Hong Kong’s leading supermarkets were dangerously high in pesticide residues. The small selection included mostly leafy vegetables and tomatoes that tend to absorb pesticides. More than 70% of tomatoes tested were found to have the banned substance lindane (banned in Australia also) and almost 40% of the samples had a mix of three or more types of pesticides12. In one tomato sample, five different pesticides, including lindane, were detected. Thirty per cent of all samples exceeded international Codex standards13.

Australia is a major trading partner with China. In 2007-08, Australia imported $11 million worth of fresh vegetables, mainly garlic and snow peas, and $35 million worth of frozen vegetables, mainly mixed vegetables, beans, peas, spinach and sweet corn14. If fresh tomatoes containing these pesticide levels found their way into this country, aside from consumer health concerns, they could have the potential to seriously damage the reputation of fresh tomatoes produced here. Currently 40% of fresh tomatoes are produced hydroponically in Australia, with the remainder field grown. This is speculative fear, but in an open market economy presently there is nothing to prevent Chinese tomatoes from entering Australia if wholesale markets determined a need to outsource produce from overseas, or if China were to become proactive in seeking entry for its produce into Australia.

In 2006, the Australian consumer journal Choice15 published an article on pesticide use in fruit and vegetables in this country. It reported that all foods sold in Australia must comply with the Food Standards Code, which defines MRLs for pesticide uses. It posed the question; “Can we be sure that our food complies with the regulations?” To examine this question, we obtained NSW data for one of the key commodities of the protected cropping industry, cucumbers. Cucumbers are almost exclusively greenhouse-produced in Australia. These data were provided to the authors by the Australian Chamber of Fruit and Vegetable Industries, which administers the nationwide FRESH TEST program. Between 2002-2007, violations where the MRL was exceeded or an unregistered chemical was detected, ranged from 2.59-11.9%, averaging 7.3% per annum16. Of course, there can be reasonable explanations for the higher levels, such as periods when seasonal conditions favoured insect pests and/or diseases that required greater frequency of pesticide application. This can bring with it the risk of mistakes being made. However, since 2005 it is encouraging to note that the percentage of violations has declined. While produce imported from countries such as China, known to have a less stringent approach than Australia to the use of agricultural chemicals, is a concern, clearly there is room for improvement by Australian greenhouse growers as well.

Results of pesticide residue testing of cucumbers from the NSW Freshtest Program. Violations are either exceeded MRLs or illegal use of pesticide.

Results of pesticide residue testing of cucumbers from the NSW Freshtest Program. Violations are either exceeded MRLs or illegal use of pesticide.

Marketing IPM in Australia
Are there any ‘forcing’ issues that might benefit the adoption of biocontrol in Australia, besides the obvious one of a scandal involving pesticide residues? The best opportunity to make greenhouse and hydroponic producers ‘want’ to accept biocontrol as an essential business decision is through the marketing of an IPM Brand. This will require the current strengthening of the IPM guidelines in GLOBALGAP, due out in 2009, to be taken up by local quality assurance schemes. It is hoped that the revised IPM guidelines will make it compulsory for biocontrol to be adopted as the preferred pest management tactic in an IPM strategy.

While GLOBALGAP is the internationally recognised standard, in Australia FRESHCARE is the on-farm food safety program that provides independent verification for an enterprise seeking certification. A concise account of the development in, and present state of, on-farm assurance schemes in Australia was presented at the 2007 national conference of the Australian hydroponic and greenhouse industry.4 Apparently, Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) is in the process of introducing Primary Production and Processing (PPP) Standards, although to date none has been introduced for horticulture. If this does come about, it should also contain strong statements about biocontrol and IPM, and not simply ‘encourage’ growers. If PPP and FRESHCARE enforce biocontrol in IPM then the development of a ‘Green Marketing Strategy’ is a strong possibility.

Australian Biocontrol in the Protected Cropping Industry
Positive stimulus in IPM will be just the thing that the biocontrol industry has been looking for. Increased demand for biocontrol agents will improve the economic viability of an industry that struggles to catch up with overseas developments, not just in the range of biocontrol products, but also in the technology used in packaging and crop distribution. Over the past 5 years there has been unprecedented investment in large-scale, modern greenhouse technology in Australia. The largest completed development is 20 ha, with two other projects of 26 and 33 ha, underway. This is bringing significant new interest in biologically based IPM. Biological Services, an insectary based in Loxton, SA, has taken the lead in the development of its product range, expanded production capacity and introduction of business efficiencies in mass rearing, packaging and crop delivery systems for growers. It is hoped that this will lead to the production of a complete range of biocontrol agents in the near future. Significant progress has been made in delivery systems for biocontrol agents overseas, which was imperative for today’s large operations. It is heartening to note that the Protected Cropping Advisory Group to the industry R&D funding body, Horticulture Australia Limited (HAL), has new biocontrol agents as its second R&D priority.

The authors wish to thank Jennifer Lewis, BCP-Certis; Karel Bolckmans, Koppert Biological Systems; Richard GreatRex, Syngenta-Bioline; Martin Clark, EO, Australian Chamber of Fruit & Vegetable Industries; Ian James, private consultant economist to Ausveg; and Alan Norden, Australian Pesticides & Veterinary Medicines Authority, for providing information that assisted this article. Google Earth is thanked for the image of the Spanish greenhouse industry.

About the authors
Since their retirement from NSW DPI, Marilyn Steiner and Stephen Goodwin have established a new business on Mangrove Mountain on the NSW Central Coast. Biocontrol Solutions is a consulting company in the area of IPM in protected crops, particularly in the development and use of biocontrol agents. Marilyn and Stephen between them have over 50 years’ experience. Email:

1. Good Agricultural Practices are “practices that address environmental, economic and social sustainability for on-farm processes, and result in safe and quality food and non-food agricultural products” (FAO COAG 2003 GAP paper). The scope of these four pillars varies widely.

2. Gillespie, D. 2002. Biological and integrated control in vegetables in British Columbia: The challenge of success. Bull. IOBC/WPRS 25(1): 73 – 76.

3. Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses, Issue 45, 1999: Greenhouse IPM – Around the World, pp. 58-63.

4. Ekman, J. 2007. Risky business – managing on-farm assurance. Proc. Moraitis Hydroponics 2007 Australian Hydroponic and Greenhouse Industry National Conference, pp.101 – 103.

5. GLOBALGAP (formerly known as EUREPGAP formed in 1997), announced in September 2007, is the key reference for GAP in the global market place. It is a pre-farm gate standard that translates consumer requirements into agricultural production practices.

6. MRL – Maximum Residue Limit is the maximum concentration of pesticide residue legally permitted in or on food commodities. MRLs are established for specific pesticide/crop combinations.

7. ARfD – Acute Reference Dose is the amount of a chemical that can be consumed in a single meal without causing harm. In the UK, it is usually set 100 times lower than the acute No Observed Effect Level (NOEL) established from laboratory tests.

8. The concepts of GAP, Good Farming Practice and Good Plant Protection Practice are used interchangeably. These may include Integrated Farming Systems, Integrated Crop Management and IPM, but the EU has no common definition with minimum standards, causing some confusion. In 2006, an EU-wide definition of IPM was proposed and that from 2014 all farms shall comply with the general principles of IPM as a minimum. The proposed definition of IPM following that of the FAO is: “Careful consideration of all available pest control techniques and subsequent integration of appropriate measures that discourage the development of pest populations and keep plant protection products and other forms of intervention to levels that are economically justified and reduce or minimise risks to human health and the environment. Integrated pest management emphasises the growth of a healthy crop with the least possible disruption to ago-ecosystems and encourages natural pest control mechanisms.” Integrated Crop management is a similar concept to IPM, but adopts a more holistic approach as the name suggests (i.e. it is not just about pests).

9. Biocontrol Files, Issue 13, March 2008.

10. Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses, Issue 93, 2007: A New Star is Born, pp. 22-28.

11. Jennifer Lewis, BCP-Certis, pers.comm.

12. Patton, D. Greenpeace raises alert over pesticides in Giangzhou fresh produce. AP-Foodtechnology, 20 June 2006.

13. Patton, D. Pesticide residues still high in Chinese vegetables. AP-Foodtechnology, 25 April 2006.

14. Ian James, consulting economist, pers. comm.

15. Pesticides in Fruit and Veg. Choice, April 2006, pp. 25-27.

16. Martin Clark, Australian Chamber of Fruit & Vegetable Industries, pers. comm

Issue 78: Towards 2020 – Vision or Myopia

September/October – 2004
Author: Steven Carruthers

The NSW Government has reversed its agricultural policy and plans to sell major research stations including the Gosford Horticulture Institute, which incorporates the National Centre for Greenhouse Horticulture. STEVEN CARRUTHERS reports the government’s myopic vision puts at risk food safety and security, and jeopardizes research, extension and training activities, industry R&D funding, as well as new industry investments.

NSW Minister for Primary Industries Ian Macdonald hasNSW. The Gosford Horticultural Institute (GHI), which sent a shudder through agriculture industries over plans to close some rural research stations across incorporates the National Centre for Greenhouse Horticulture (NCGH) and the Somersby Field Station, is among those research stations to close and its activities transferred to the Elizabeth MacArthur Agricultural Institute (EMAI) located at Camden south of Sydney.

Following rallies, petitions and submissions by farmers and industry stakeholders opposing the closures,the Minister announced a moratorium on Grafton, Temora, Deniliquin and Gosford research stations following agreement with the Public Service Association (PSA) about how the views of staff and communities will be taken into account in the decision-making process. The moratorium is expected to end in November 2004 however,the Minister said it does not apply to the disposal of land assets, implying the government still plans to sell these assets, which the Minister has described as ‘under-utilized’ and ‘archaic’ facilities.

After the moratorium was announced,Minister MacDonald sent mixed messages to the greenhouse industry when he told Sydney growers at a certificate presentation ceremony of his plan to invest in new greenhouses at Camden as a commitment to securing the future of horticulture in the Sydney Basin. The government recently invested in modern greenhouse facilities at Gosford with a major focus on crucial integrated pest management (IPM) research and the development of biocontrols to minimize or eliminate the use of pesticides in greenhouse horticulture. The new Gosford greenhouse facilities are far from under-utilized or archaic. The Minister made no mention of the moratorium.

The research station closures are part of the government’s Towards 2020 plan that restructures the Department of Primary Industries (NSWDPI) and centralizes agricultural activities to the Sydney Basin, a reversal of the government’s controversial decentralisation policy introduced in the 1990’s. Under the Towards 2020 package, the government plans to relocate many of its agricultural activities from Gosford to Camden, and to dispose of redundant land assets to fund the restructure and operational expenditure of the new Department that brings together Forestry, Fisheries,Mining and Agriculture.

The closure of crucial research stations across the State has all the hallmarks of government policy on the run,a myopic vision based on the Minister’s need to make cost-savings; rather than on a detailed cost/benefit appraisal of the planned changes. The government’s about face on agricultural policy puts at risk food safety and the State’s food security and jeopardizes research, extension and training activities, and current and future industry R&D funding,as well as new investments from industry. The Minister’s new centralisation plan also tarnishes the government’s reputation with Departmental clients and rural communities.

In the early 1990’s,decentralisation was a major plank in the NSW Government’s new strategy to create regional ‘Centres of Excellence’ for agricultural research.In 1991, the Department transferred its head office to Orange after operating in Sydney for 100 years,since its inception. The move of 400 staff was the largest of its kind ever undertaken by a government department in Australia.

By the beginning of 1997, the NSW Government had closed the long-established Biological and Chemical Research Institute (BCRI) at Rydalmere, and relocated its functions and staff to other research stations throughout the State as part of its decentralisation policy.

The BRCI closure had its genesis in the 1995 budget process when the Government initially decided to achieve savings in the department, primarily through increased cost recovery on research and extension activities,along with some additional savings measures from land asset sales and staff redundancies. The program was intended to generate additional revenue and savings for the State of some $35 million per annum after three years. However,the closure failed to meet government expectations when it only recovered $6 million from the sale of a portion of the Rydalmere site, well below the $22 million claimed in the budget.

The BCRI closure saw the loss of more than 120 staff that accepted redundancy packages with a direct cost to NSW taxpayers of at least $10.4 million. There were also substantial indirect costs such as recruitment and training costs to replace skilled staff that took redundancy, and the costs associated with the short-term loss of productivity. In a ‘Review of NSW Agriculture’ tabled in the Legislative Assembly in March 1997, the Audit Office reported many of the direct and indirect costs associated with the Rydalmere closure could have been avoided with better planning and communication, and it criticised the government for failing to follow its own guidelines on economic appraisal, valuation and disposal of assets.

Since it was opened in 1961, BCRI had been the centre for statewide research and diagnostic services on plant disease and insect pests. The decentralisation of its functions to regional institutes was intended to focus research on industry needs in the long term,and to generate revenue from asset sales in the short term.Then, like now, the government relied on the proceeds of land sales and redundancy packages to fund the Department’s new structure, and made decisions to relocate its research functions without any detailed cost/benefit analysis.

Since announcing the latest research station closures, Minister MacDonald has provided no cost/benefit analysis and little detail about his Towards 2020 plan,other than a three-page media release which included a one-page outline of the government’s re-investment plan for agricultural research. “This $25 million Towards 2020 plan will reinvigorate and re-energize our primary industries science, technology and research in NSW,” he said.

The NSW Minister for Agriculture described it as a “bold, creative and revolutionary plan” and the “single most ambitious” plan in two decades.

Indeed. What the Minister didn’t say is he is looking for a $37million cost saving of which $20 million has been identified from increased revenue generated from Forestry activities.The other $17 million cost-savings will come out of the balance of the new Department (mostly agriculture) from land sales and the recently announced redundancy package.

Sound familiar? Well it should.The same government is using the same strategy used in the 1990’s, but then it was disguised in a grand vision to decentralize agriculture.According to industry estimates, the cost-savings targets for the new Department represents around 340 staff positions,and their loss is expected to result in the loss of some existing services,and downgrading of others that will be relocated from Gosford to the Camden super research facility that the government claims it plans to create.

When the government is only focused on cost-savings, it’s difficult to convince the Minister of the real benefits of the current GHI research program and its true impact on the economy and community. The Minister’s proposal fails to acknowledge the increasing importance of the NSW greenhouse industry, now valued at around $300 million at the farm gate per annum, or the increasing urbanisation of the landscape across the Sydney Basin. While the Sydney Basin has been the major greenhouse production area of NSW, many growers lease rather than own their land,and growers are feeling the pressure of encroaching urban development. The development of an environmentally sustainable and profitable greenhouse industry in the Sydney Basin and to the south of Sydney is also severely curtailed by strict local government planning rules that prohibit the expansion of modern high-walled greenhouse structures that afford optimal growing conditions for maximum production. Therefore, further expansion is unlikely to take place in the Sydney Basin.

Throughout Australia, the greenhouse industry is growing rapidly as a key provider of safe, quality food. In NSW,the Central Coast and lower Hunter regions are ideal locations for further industry expansion because of favourable climate, suitable zoning and available labour, while remaining within a short distance of Sydney markets via a fast modern highway.

Over the past four years, the greenhouse industry has experienced 30% growth in the Central Coast region.With this growth, there has been a concentrated strategic effort by the Department to develop its greenhouse research, extension and training capability on the Central Coast. The establishment of the NCGH at Gosford was in recognition of the contribution of this industry to the economy, the environment,and employment in the region.

GHI employs 19 world-class research,extension and training staff who provide regional,state and national frontline services, including crucial services to the emerging commercial greenhouse industry. The new NCGH has a committed focus on integrated pest management (IPM) strategies for greenhouse horticulture,including the development of biocontrols that minimize or eliminate the use of pesticides. Other frontline services include market access,postharvest and biosecurity research, greenhouse crop physiology and greenhouse QA extension and training, as well as fruit and poultry extension services. GHI has also played a significant role in developing new industries in the region including native cut flowers, Asian vegetables, and currently green tea.

GHI is strategically placed to serve a wide range of agricultural and horticultural industries, many of which are regional.Increasing emphasis on food safety, sustainable resource management, science-based market access, and the pressure for agricultural industries to move out of the Sydney Basin area,led the Department to invest significant funds into GHI,including the establishment of the National Centre for Greenhouse Horticulture in 2000. In its first year of operation, this $1 million investment was matched by in excess of $1 million in industry R&D funding. In 2003, the Department declared GHI a ‘Centre of Excellence’ for Market Access and Greenhouse Horticulture, ramping up its staff and resources, appointing Industry Advisory Committees, and initiating a strategic plan as part of its investment.

The Gosford research station is NSWDPI’s largest horticultural research, extension and training centre, and is a pivotal resource for other research centres located around the State. Its closure means there will be significant impacts on the Department’s frontline services beyond GHI.These impacts include a loss of access by local,regional and national farming communities to NSWDPI research, extension and industry development services. Its proposed closure will disrupt regional growth in the development of intensive horticulture in the region – it reverses the Department’s policy to encourage horticulture out of the Sydney Basin.

The closure of GHI will impact on existing, externally funded contract commitments, which involve over 40 projects, and lead to a loss of industry confidence in future project capacities through staff and resource instability.

Many GHI programs are not transferable to EMAI where the soils and climate are unsuitable for growing the majority of the native cut flowers and green tea currently being researched at GHI. The loss of these programs will lead to a loss of capability to service developing NSW industries. The move to Camden will also result in a lost opportunity to develop a new horticultural industry and potentially lucrative export markets for green tea.

GHI has the only commercial-sized culture of the biocontrol agent Montdorensis to control western flower thrips. The commercial availability of this valuable new biocontrol agent will be severely curtailed if the GHI closure goes ahead. Likewise the new fungal biopesticide development project. The development of further new biocontrol agents, and work on developing new biorational chemical treatments and the evaluation of chemical risks in greenhouses to biocontrol agents, will be severely disadvantaged by the closure of GHI with the distinct possibility of no industry outcomes. What a waste of taxpayer and industry money!

The EMAI site is colder in winter and hotter in summer compared to the Central Coast region.As a result,greenhouse engineering, heating and cooling costs will be significantly higher than for GHI. Relocation to Camden also means significant additional costs and delays to build new facilities,which will severely interrupt current research programs and future R&D funding opportunities.Contrary to the Minister’s statement that his plan will attract R&D funding to NSW; rather, South Australia and Victoria will instead become the major beneficiaries for future R&D funding to support their rapidly growing greenhouse industries.

The NCGH currently attracts substantial and increasing project funding from sources outside the NSW Government. This in turn attracts matching funds from the Federal Government. Loss of research programs and unavoidable disruptions associated with relocation will see much of this funding lost in the short term. With its Greenhouse Modernisation Project (GMP) and the development of the $75 million Torrens Island Greenhouse Precinct in South Australia, and the establishment of significant, world-class glasshouse operations in Victoria,there is a considerable risk that the void during this time will be permanently filled by interstate research organisations, resulting in the ongoing loss of external funding to NSW.

Relocation also means impacts on staff that no cost/benefit analysis can measure.For example, over the past two years, the Department has recruited five new scientists to build its critical mass at GHI to service regional and national horticulture industries. A number of these came from overseas. After careful selection,the department felt it had selected five top-flight scientists, who have just started to attract industry funding and to establish their reputations with industry.Most have just bought homes on the Central Coast.

With the recent announcement of staff redundancies, the GHI closure will result in the loss of some of these scientists and other key staff with considerable experience, knowledge and skills. For those who find themselves transferred to EMAI, one can expect reduced staff morale and performance for a considerable time.

Finally, the separation of research, extension and training is a retrograde step that is contrary to Best Practice. If this policy decision is allowed to stand, it will be a disastrous outcome for horticultural industries across NSW as well as the national greenhouse industry that owes much of its pesticide-free management practices to work conducted by GHI researchers and extension teams.

Haven’t we learnt anything from the BCRI fiasco! The Minister’s “bold, creative and innovative” plan does not take into account the significance of regional, State and national works conducted at GHI. Farmers across the State are astounded the government’s policy reversal has occurred without consultation with local and regional agricultural industries, and without the benefit of a cost/benefit analysis.

If the BCRI experience is any indicator, the proposed closure of GHI and other research stations will not contribute to cost-savings targets after the costs of relocation, reconstruction and redundancy packages are taken into account,and still maintain the same level of services that currently exist.For GHI, industry estimates put the cost of relocation and reconstruction at Camden between $5-10 million,which needs to be realized from staff redundancy and land that is partially flood prone. Gosford City Council has voiced its opposition to the proposed closure. Councillors have indicated their intention to oppose any plan to subdivide the GHI Narara site for housing,having recently spent over $10 million on studies, mitigation and restoration works in this catchment area.Moving the modern greenhouse structures from Gosford to Camden is also not a commercially viable option.

Even if it was financially worthwhile to sell these research stations, it is only a one-off contribution,whereas the required cost saving is annual, increasing from $37 million in the first year to $58 million annually. How does the Minister plan to meet cost-saving targets in successive years?

Minister MacDonald has shown little inclination to listen to farmers or staff opposed to the closures, and he appears determined to implement his plan without the benefit of a cost/benefit analysis.

While most industry experts agree the NSW Government should be spending more, not less on agricultural research, extension and training, there are alternative options and strategies available to the Minister that have minimum impacts on existing programs and staff and will achieve cost savings for the new Department. With regard to GHI, unused portions of this 93ha site could be sold while retaining existing infrastructure,programs and staff. Another option is to sell the GHI site altogether and transfer its facilities, programs and staff to the 67ha Somersby Field Station, just up the road. The Narara site on which the NCGH is located suffers to some extent from a lack of critical mass and government funding in support of basic programs,so that such a move would,in the long run,be advantageous. The money proposed to be spent at Camden would be better utilized to ‘reinvigorate’ facilities and programs through transfers to Somersby.

If the government is determined to reduce the number of research stations around the State, there are three more obvious candidates for closure that would cause no staff disruption or disruption to programs. They are: close the Bathurst Agricultural Research Station and relocate staff to the Orange Agricultural Institute,just up the road;close the Griffith Viticulture Research Station and relocate staff to Yanco, just up the road; and close Alstonville Tropical Fruit Research Station and relocate staff to Wollongbar, again,just up the road.

With regard to savings from staff redundancies,this will occur via natural attritition and the abstinence of recruitment programs. As the BCRI experience found, at NSW taxpayer cost, redundancies should not go ahead if key staff need to be replaced. There is no saving if the job vacated must be refilled.

The NCGH facilities include four smaller, double-skin greenhouses used for IPM research programs.

Today,growing crops without using harmful pesticides and herbicides is the greatest challenge facing growers throughout the world. Competitive, consumer and environmental pressures are forcing growers to use sustainable growing practices that adopt integrated pest management (IPM) strategies and biocontrols to improve food safety, food security (i.e.the long-term capability to produce safe food for future generations), and grower profits. In more simplistic language, it’s about the economic, environmental and social sustainability of growing fresh, safe food, now and into the future.

The history of IPM can be traced back to the late 1800’s when ecology was identified as the foundation for scientific plant protection.The catalyst for modern day IPM began in the 1950’s when over-reliance on chemicals led to catastrophic results.There are many examples where pests have developed resistance to chemicals. Combined with consumer pressures for safe food free of pesticide residues, agricultural industries have undergone a ‘sea-change’ to implement IPM practices.All countries with developed greenhouse industries practice IPM where it is widely accepted as the modern approach to pest management.

However,Australia lags behind in IPM technologies compared to countries that have significant greenhouse industries,including Canada, the USA, New Zealand,and most countries in the European Union. Unfortunately, exotic biocontrols and management practices developed overseas cannot be easily transferred to Australia owing to its unique biosystems. Strict quarantine regulations prevent the importation of most exotic biocontrols, leaving Australian researchers the enormous task of developing their own native beneficials and management protocols,and transferring their successes to growers through extension and training activities.

Indeed, lapses in quarantine and biosecurity have added to the problem with the inadvertent introductions of new exotic pests and diseases into Australia, including western flower thrips and citrus canker, among others,which have cost Australian agriculture millions of dollars in crop losses.

GHI is at the coalface discovering and developing native biocontrols and new IPM management protocols unique to Australian agricultural and horticultural systems. GHI is critical infrastructure for the future success and implementation of IPM programs in greenhouse horticulture across NSW and Australia.

Modern greenhouse used to investigate growing systems, production practices, and to develop effective biological controls.

Food safety is one of the key issues concerning all governments in developed countries. In addition to heightened fears of terrorists contaminating the food chain, today’s health-conscious consumers are demanding fresh, safe, healthy foods free of pesticide residues. Most governments offer significant incentives and investments to develop modern greenhouse industries to produce safe food. Rather than decreasing services, the NSW Government should be following this global trend, increasing R&D funding and expanding its role if it hopes to match Best Practices.

Canada and Australia have much in common including a similar population size and a multicultural urban society. However,by comparison, Canadian Federal and Provincial governments have made significant investments to develop a robust greenhouse industry,which has grown from small beginnings 20 years ago to one of the global powerhouses for greenhouse production. In 2003,the Canadian greenhouse industry was valued at $2.5 billion, with vegetable production representing $1 billion. Combining vegetables and cut flower production,the Australian greenhouse industry is valued at around $500 million at the farm gate per annum, representing about 10% of total vegetable and nursery production in Australia.

The NSW Government could learn much from the Canadian experience. Canadian governments strongly support greenhouse production and IPM research. There are several Federal Government horticulture research stations across Canada where greenhouse production is a strong focus.These include the Greenhouse and Processing Crops Research Centre located in Harrow, Ontario,which is the largest greenhouse vegetable research facility in North America, and the Pacific Agriculture Research Centre in Agassiz,British Columbia,which has several researchers involved with ongoing greenhouse vegetable production services and IPM.Australia has no Federal research facility focused on greenhouse vegetable and flower production, although GHI receives some Federal funding to research greenhouse horticulture with an emphasis on IPM technologies and food safety.

Canada also has a successful program where government will match agricultural industry contributions to research projects. The ‘Matching Investment Initiative’ is not just a greenhouse program, but for all sectors. Combined with other private sector sources and grants programs, it can result in growers’ funds being multiplied by up to 10 times (i.e.each dollar in contributions results in up to $10 worth of research). The triggers for this funding pyramid are the initial contributions from growers. In Australia,the best industry investors can hope for is a dollar-for-dollar matching contribution from the Federal Government.

On the provincial side,there are programs in all the major greenhouse regions in Canada,including Ontario, British Columbia, Quebec and Alberta. The Alberta Government operates two greenhouse research centres, in the north and south of the province. In Australia,GHI is the only greenhouse vegetable and IPM research centre.

The GHI closure will impact on existing externally funded contract commitments, which involve over 40 projects.

In general,Government cutbacks are a sign of the times,even in Canada, though existing greenhouse programs are still functioning quite well.The Ontario Government is now in the process of relocating its research greenhouses to the nearby University of Guelph campus to encourage more co-operative work while taking advantage of some consolidated cost savings. The University already has a large horticultural research department,including floriculture greenhouses,and the move is not expected to disrupt existing research programs and services.

The same synergies do not exist between GHI and EMAI where the Minister’s $6.5 million reinvestment plan there has been ear-marked for a fully robotic dairy, fruit fly research, and postharvest laboratories. Although he announced “significant investment in new greenhouses at Camden”,there is no indication of new greenhouse facilities and IPM projects outlined in the Minister’s flimsy and somewhat confused plan.As it stands, the plan to separate postharvest and market access groups from the greenhouse and IPM groups at GHI will cause serious harm to the highly effective food safety program, including for the greenhouse industry that has been built up at Gosford over the past two years. This is widely regarded as the leading applied research, extension and training unit in this area in Australia. To dismantle it at this stage,when it is starting to deliver benefits to industry and DPI,is just plain silly.

The Towards 2020 plan is not a vision to reinvigorate and re-energize our primary industries; it’s a return to the dark ages before decentralisation. The government’s reversal of its agricultural policy is a bold move, indeed, but not innovative. Without a cost/benefit analysis, I don’t think anyone would disagree with the Minister’s spin that the plan is ‘creative’.

This “bold, innovative and creative” plan is not about benefits to industry, and ultimately the NSW taxpayer; it’s about cost-savings for an increasingly city centric government. If the Minister’s myopic plan is allowed to go ahead, it will mean the end for NCGH research, extension and training services, which will go in different directions. Sadly, many professional staff will not transfer and will be lost. What a tragic waste of time, money and industry faith in both the NCGH and NSWDPI!

Steven Carruthers is the Managing Editor of Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses magazine,and the Vice-President of the Australian Hydroponic & Greenhouse Association.

Audit Office of NSW
Performance Audit Report:A Review of NSW Agriculture, March 1997. ISBN 073104306.

MacDonald,I.,NSW Minister for Primary Industries
Towards 2020: Growing our Future.
Keynote address, NSW Farmers Annual Conference, 2004.

Papadopoulos,Dr A.P.
Research and development in protected horticulture as a support to growers – the experience of Leamington, Ontario, Canada. Greenhouse and Processing and Agri-Food Canada, 2004.  Ω

PH&G September/October 2004 / Issue 78

Issue 77: A Bee’s Eye View

July/August – 2004
Author: Steven Carruthers

The cases for and against the importation of bumblebees onto mainland Australia to pollinate crops

STEVEN CARRUTHERS analyses the cases for and against the application to introduce the bumblebee, B. terrestris, onto mainland Australia for crop pollination purposes. Should importation be allowed, he reports bumblebees will not dramatically change the status of the native and agricultural ecosystems, and there will be significant cost-savings for Australian growers as well as improved yields and fruit quality. He writes there will also be environmental benefits with a large reduction in the use of pesticides, that will also lead to improved worker and food safety.

The Australian Hydroponics & Greenhouse Association (AHGA) has taken the next step in applying to the Department of Environment and Heritage (DEH) to allow the import of bumblebees ( Bombus terrestris) onto mainland Australia to pollinate commercial greenhouse crops. The final three-step process began in April 2004 when the industry’s Draft Terms of Reference were posted on the DEH website for a period of 10 days to allow members of the public the opportunity to comment. The terms of reference outline the areas that interested parties believe should be examined prior to any determination on the application by the Federal Minister.

Step 2 requires the AHGA to write a detailed report that considers the points raised in the terms of reference, which will then be posted on the DEH website for 20 days to allow for further public comments.

Step 3 requires the AHGA to consider the public comments from Step 2, and produce a ‘final report’ for the Federal Minister for the Environment and Heritage. The Minister then consults with other Federal, State and Territory Ministers before deciding whether to add B. terrestris to the list of species suitable for import onto mainland Australia.

Greenhouse growers and other industry members will have their opportunity to have a say during Step 2 of the application process. At the time of going to press, the AHGA was still waiting to receive the public comments from Step 1.

In the meantime, the application to import bumblebees onto mainland Australia has provoked a strong response from conservationists opposed to it.

Bombus terrestris was accidentally introduced into Tasmania in 1992 where, in this most temperate of Australian climates, it has since spread to regions with good rainfall, mostly in urban areas where there is an abundant supply of nectar and pollen from preferred introduced plant species (Hergstrom et al. , 2002). Natural or accidental migration from Tasmania to the mainland cannot be ruled out (interceptions at two ports have been reported recently), but establishment has not so far occurred and is generally considered unlikely given unfavourable climate and lack of continuous food resources.

Broadly, those who oppose the application claim that, if allowed import onto the mainland, B. terrestris will invade a wide range of wilderness areas and compete with native bird and bee species for nectar and pollen, and possibly spread weeds through increasing seed set. Their case is primarily based on the study of bumblebees in Tasmania by Hingston (1999).

The case for the application
Why do Australian growers want bumblebee technology? Bombus terrestris is an effective pollinator of tomatoes because of its ability to extract pollen from the poricidal anthers by vibrating them at an appropriate frequency. Bumblebees are also effective pollinators of other important commercial crops including capsicum, eggplant and strawberry. While honeybees will also pollinate tomatoes, bumblebees are the preferred pollinators in greenhouses because they remain on the crop more than honeybees. Honeybees don’t like the conditions inside the greenhouse and usually escape.

Overseas, bumblebee technology has led to improved Integrated Pest Management (IPM) practices in greenhouses, resulting in adoption of biological control and a large reduction in the use of pesticides and other spray chemicals. These chemicals are not only expensive, but compromise food safety, worker health, and the environment.

In Australia, there have been some limited research trials using native bees to pollinate greenhouse tomatoes. The blue-banded bee (Amegilla spp.) has shown the most promise, but goes into dormancy when the weather cools. Tomato flowers do not produce nectar, so researchers also need to develop artificial feeders. Most greenhouse industry experts agree it will be many years before researchers are able to commercialise artificial hives for greenhouse applications, if at all.

Cost:benefit analysis
Currently, Australian greenhouse growers pollinate their crops using mechanical, hand-held vibrators, usually three times weekly at a high labour, equipment and maintenance (battery) cost. The AHGA estimates hand pollination will take 780 man hours per year for a 6,00osqm greenhouse growing two crops per year. On a casual rate of $16/hr, the total labour cost is $12,480/year or $2.08sqm. For a single tomato crop grown over a year, mechanical pollination will take 1,040 man hours at a cost of $16,640 or $2.77/sqm. Then there are the costs of vibrators and expensive batteries, and the secondment of trolleys for pollination duties when they can’t be used for other jobs.

By comparison, in Holland, the cost of bumblebee hives is around AU$117, and AU$140 in New Zealand. According to Dutch greenhouse data, a grower of tomatoes needs eight hives per hectare (8 hives/ha), and a grower of cherry tomatoes needs 12 hives/ha. A hive can have a life expectancy of anywhere between six weeks and three months, depending upon conditions. It’s usual to assume an average hive life of two months.

For cherry tomatoes, it will take seven hives to cover a 6,000sqm greenhouse area. The pollination period would be about 10 months (over two crops), so the grower would need 35 hives/year. Even at $160 per hive, this would be a total of $5, 600/year, or $0.93/sqm/year. This is a saving of $6,880/year compared to hand pollination, and $11,040 for one 12-month tomato crop. In both crop scenarios, there is more than a 50% saving to growers compared to mechanical pollination.

“The overseas experience has shown that bumblebee technology also improves yields and fruit quality and this, of course, is at no extra cost,” said Tasmanian greenhouse tomato grower, Mr Marcus Brandsema, who conducted the analysis on behalf of the AHGA.

Increased overseas competition
Overseas competition is also driving the case to import bumblebees onto mainland Australia. In 2002, Biosecurity Australia (BA) approved the import of greenhouse tomatoes from New Zealand. By December 2002, Australia had imported 330, 000kg of tomatoes worth $796,460. In December 2003, NZ tomato imports rose to 354,900kg worth over $1 million, a growth of 25% over the first year of imports, and the figures for 2004 are set to go even higher. In January, Australia imported 256,000kg of Kiwi tomatoes, valued at around $840,000.

There are apparent mitigating factors for this increase in tomato imports. The NZapplication to allow the import of Kiwi tomatoes was approved on the basis of meeting shortfalls in the Australian market as a result of drought in the Bowen and Bundaberg tomato-producing regions. However, in spite of the ongoing drought, Australia has managed to export five varieties of tomatoes worth more than $5 million a year to New Zealand.

Australian tomato growers will come under even more pressure with the arrival of the first Dutch greenhouse-grown tomatoes. In October 2003, Biosecurity Australia finalised the import conditions for truss tomatoes from the Netherlands to Australia. In the near future, Australian consumers will be introduced to high quality, greenhouse-grown Dutch tomatoes, elegantly packaged as tamper-resistant functional foods. If the marketeers follow European trends, then this packaging will include a symbol of the bumblebee, a consumer guarantee that these tomatoes are pesticide-free.

Both Dutch and New Zealand tomato growers use bumblebee technology to improve fruit yields and quality. In fact, Australia is about the only country with a large protected cropping industry that doesn’t use bumblebee technology. It’s to New Zealand’s credit that growers moved to state-of-the-art greenhouse technology several years ago. Today, all Kiwi tomatoes are grown in modern greenhouses, mostly glass, using automated nutrient management and climate control systems, as well as bumblebee technology to lower production costs compared to Australian growers.

The problem here is that the Australian greenhouse industry is underdeveloped compared to Holland and New Zealand, mainly because of a lack of investment in the industry. However, this is changing with significant greenhouse developments either on the drawing board or underway in Victoria, South Australia, and the Bundaberg region of Queensland.

Nonetheless, growers will still be disadvantaged because Australia has no commercial pollinator and no native species of bumblebee. Although researchers are trialing several native bee species as alternatives to bumblebees, this research is still in its infancy. Of those native bees being trialed, Amegilla shows the most promise as a pollinator of tomato crops however, commercial rearing and the development of artificial hives for greenhouse applications are still many years off. Finding a buzz pollinator that effectively pollinates tomatoes is one issue:rearing it in commercial quantities at an acceptable cost is quite a different proposition. A good reality check is to look at the 10 years of research that has gone into finding a natural enemy for control of western flower thrips in Australia. Many candidates ate thrips, but only one, the Queensland-originating predatory mite Typhlodromips montdorensis, lent itself to mass rearing.

Environmental ImpactStudy
The application to import B. terrestris for commercial use in greenhouses was actually first made in 1997. Concerns raised at the time resulted in a three-year Environmental Impact Study (EIS) on the impact of B. terrestris on Tasmania’s flora and fauna. The EIS was funded by Horticulture Australia and the AHGA, and the outcomes were reviewed in Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses (Issue 69).

The AHGA also funded a climatology study using the CLIMEX model, (Hergstrom, 2003) to predict where B. terrestris is likely to spread should it be allowed importation to mainland Australia, or hitch a ride on strong winds across the Bass Strait.

Both the EIS and CLIMEX studies indicate bumblebees will not dramatically change the status of native and agricultural eco-systems. The CLIMEX study indicates the likelihood of only limited distribution of B. terrestris on mainland Australia should it arrive either by accident or design. The study predicts these areas will be restricted to the wetter areas of Victoria, the south-west corner of Western Australia, and a limited area of NSW across the northeastern border of Victoria, most likely in irrigated areas and urban gardens where there is an abundance of year-round nectar from preferred introduced plant species.

To ensure there are no or limited negative effects of bumblebees establishing in the wild, any importation would be tightly controlled, using ‘clean’ bees. These bees would form the nucleus of the commercial rearing unit. To provide further safeguards, modern commercial bumblebee hives are designed to prevent the escape of queens. It is also possible, but twice as expensive, to design and distribute worker-only nests at the greenhouse site (Griffiths, 2004).

The case against the application
Spearheading the case against the application to import bumblebees onto mainland Australia is the Australian Native Bee Research Centre (ANBRC), which claims bumblebees will invade a wide range of habitats and feed on a wide range of plants with negative impacts on native species. They frequently quote studies by Hingston (1999) as evidence of resource competition. However, industry experts and international scientists say this study is questionable science (see article this issue: ‘A Critical Study’).

The Hingston study on resource competition was conducted over only two days in two small adjacent quadrants, comparing bumblebees foraging with two unidentified native bee species of the Chalicodoma genus (recently renamed the Megachile genus).

However, weaknesses in the methodology make conclusions based on statistical analysis less than reliable. There are also serious omissions in the data on bumblebee activity during the study period.

A good example of the weaknesses in the Hingston experiment was demonstrated when Hergstrom et al. spent hundreds of hours monitoring exactly the same site, and came up with quite a different result.

Those opposed to the application have tried to implicate bumblebees as a potential threat to native bird species that share the same nectar and pollen resources. They particularly point to the endangered Swift Parrot (Lathamus discolor), which breeds only in the blue gum (Eucalyptus globulus) forests of Tasmania. The Swift Parrot migrates to the mainland every autumn to winter, and can be found mostly in the nectar-rich, box-ironbark forests and woodlands of Victoria and New South Wales. Recent sightings across southern Queensland suggest this species is also a regular visitor to that State.

The conservationists claim the Swift Parrot is largely dependent on nectar and pollen from E. globulus, and there is little breeding in the years when flowering of this tree is poor. They claim B. terrestris robs nectar and pollen from this tree, and point to the Hingston study of bumblebees observed on E. globulus over a four-month period as evidence. Two years later, Hergstrom studied B. terrestris over the same seasonal period, at 18 sites, and came to a completely different result. Hergstrom reports bumblebees only represented 2% of potential pollinators of E. globulus. Honeybees were by far the dominant pollinator (56%), followed by birds (25%). Native bees represented 4% of visitors.

In nature, competition for resources is the norm, not the exception. Even though it appears there will be less nectar available in flowers from each visitor, it’s stretching it to make assumptions on the long-term survival of native species utilising the same food resources, based on observations over a short time period and over a small sample area (1ha of suburban bushland). The fact that different species may feed on E. globulus nectar at some time, is not evidence of a negative impact.

The conservationists also fail to mention a key published paper on the Swift Parrot (McNally and Horrocks, 1999), that finds there were no relationships between measures of eucalypt flowering and densities of Swift Parrot in its winter range in central Victoria.

According to Birds Australia, a respected conservation group, the decline of the Swift Parrot is attributed to land clearing of more than 85% of their preferred wintering habitats, and continual clearing of 500-1,000 hectares of its breeding habitat for commercial wood-chipping every year. Many individuals also die after colliding with man-made structures, such as windows and tennis court fences.

Conservationists also compare bumblebees with honeybees (Apis mellifera) and their impact on Australian eco-systems, but they fail to mention a key study by Manning (1997), which criticises existing scientific studies relating to the impact of honeybees on Australian wildlife. Despite years of study, there is no consensus on the impact of the ubiquitous honeybee on Australian eco-systems.

Those opposed to the application claim bumblebees have invaded every corner of Israel, including the desert, since their introduction there more than a decade ago. They point to the Dafni (1998) study that predicts bumblebees will colonise the country. However, Israeli and international scientists have refuted the methodologies and predictions of this study.

According to Rivka Offenbach, a vegetable consultant in both greenhouse and open field vegetables in the Arava region, the use of bumblebees is widespread over Israel, including the desert areas, but only in greenhouses. “The bees are in closed structures isolated by nets,” she said. “Although the structures are not absolutely sealed, and some bees get out of the greenhouses, there is no spread of these bees in nature, and they are not able to reproduce. We did not find any damage to other insects in the desert,” she added.

According to Dr Shimon Steinberg, principal entomologist with Bio-Bee Biological Systems in Israel and a world-renowned expert on bumblebees, there is no evidence to support Dafni’s conclusions about widespread establishment of B terrestris in Israel (pers. corresp.).

“There is no evidence of feral establishment of B. terrestris in Israel outside its natural range, ” he said.

Apart from Dafni’s ‘research’ on the infamous single tree outside his office, he also co-authored on an area ravaged by fire. Dr Steinberg says this was just re-invasion of limited natural resources after the fire. Dafni admitted that B. terrestris has declined there over the past two years.

Bio-Bee also export B. terrestris to Japan where it was introduced a few years ago – this is significant because this would presumably be a warm temperature species. Japan has a number of native Bombus species, but attempts to commercially mass produce them failed because they were too expensive. Apart from intial opposition from a flawed study, Dr Steinberg reports he is not aware of any problems with B. terrestris in Japan. This is also supported by reports kept in Japan of feral bees.

These aren’t the only issues conservationists have with the application to import bumblebees onto mainland Australia, but they are the most significant. I don’t want to underplay the significance of these issues, especially as it relates to weed species, but space is a premium and the impact of bumblebees on weed species is dealt with in Dr Griffiths’ Critical Study (page 42).

The use of bumblebees to pollinate greenhouse crops will result in a significant increase in yields and fruit quality, as it has done in Europe, the USA, Japan, Israel and New Zealand. Australia is one of the few developed countries that doesn’t have access to bumblebee technology.

Bumblebee technology has also led to improved Integrated Pest Management practices, resulting in a large reduction in the use of pesticides and other spray chemicals. These chemicals are not only expensive, but can compromise food safety, worker safety and the environment.

There have been limited trials using the blue-banded native bee to buzz pollinate tomato flowers, but it will be many years before researchers are able to commercialise artificial hives for greenhouse applications, if at all, by which time bumblebees may have already migrated to the mainland. There has been an appalling lack of communication between native bee researchers and industry, which only recently became aware of the three-year trial to comercialise artificial hives for greenhouse applications. Nearing the end of its first year, the trial has yet to publish any milestone reports.

A cost:benefit analysis of using bumblebees to pollinate greenhouse tomatoes has found bumblebee technology will reduce pollination costs for a 6,000sqm greenhouse by more than 50%. The saving on pesticides is another significant cost saving for growers, and good news for consumers and the environment.

With the accidental introduction of B. terrestris in Tasmania, the industry funded an EIS and CLIMEX study to determine the likely impacts on Tasmania’s flora and fauna as a yardstick to predict likely outcomes on mainland Australia should it be allowed import, or migrates from the island State. Both the EIS and CLIMEX study indicate that bumblebees will not dramatically change the status of native and agricultural eco-systems on mainland Australia, and its distribution will be limited to the wetter regions of Victoria, southern NSW and south-west Western Australia, mainly in urban gardens.

A further safeguard if B. terrestris is approved for commercial release in Australia, is to only import a clean species sourced from a temperate region. This strain, being adapted to a colder climate, would be less likely to survive the hot summers experienced in most parts of mainland Australia, including all of those areas identified in the CLIMEX study as potentially capable of supporting B. terrestris. However, this wouldn’t be the best option for operating in hot greenhouses.

The case against the application has been based on conjecture and questionable science, using material that only supports that position and ignoring all information to the contrary. For example, opponents fail to mention that there have been several attempts to introduce Bombus species onto mainland Australia, including Victoria in the 1930’s and NSW in 1891 and 1912 (these early introductions from New Zealand were probably temperate species, which is why they didn’t establish on the mainland).

Nonetheless, the conservation lobby has been successful in getting B. terrestris listed as a ‘Key Threatening Process’ in Victoria and New South Wales. However, attempts to list the bumblebee as a Key Threatening Process at a Federal level failed when the Minister for the Environment and Heritage, Dr David Kemp, declined the application on the basis of insufficient evidence.

Under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act), a ‘Key Threatening Process’ is defined as any process that threatens or may threaten the survival, abundance or evolutionary development of a native species or ecological community. For example, predation by the European Fox is a key threatening process. One suspects that the spectre of foxes and cane toads must have loomed large in government thinking. I have been unable to find any reliable literature where B. terrestris has been listed as a pest, including those countries where Bombus has been introduced for greenhouse pollination.

There are many cautions in biological literature about drawing inferences from short-term observations like those demonstrated in the Hingston studies. In the scale of time, the ‘Swift Parrot Recovery Plan’, an initiative of Birds Australia, reports there have been only three breeding seasons over a 10-year period (1985-95) when food supplies were abundant. This was based on gum honey production figures. Even the three-year Environmental Impact Study is a short study period to arrive at objective conclusions;but this and the CLIMEX study are the best science we have in which to make predictions about the potential establishment and distribution of B. terrestris on the mainland should it be allowed import, or arrive by accident or design.

As a result of claims made by the conservation lobby, the very real issues concerning the impact of bumblebees in Australia have become clouded by emotive statements designed to galvanise public opposition against the application. This makes it very difficult to conduct serious scientific studies that will provide a solid basis for objective decision-making. Questionable science is also the reason why there is no consensus on the impact of honeybees on the Australian biota – the debate will continue!

Greenhouse growers and industry members have an opportunity to show their support for the application during Stage 2 of the process, when the ‘detailed report’ is posted on the DEH website for 20 days.

In the meantime, the industry can only hope that good science prevails.

About the author
Steven Carruthers is the Managing Editor of Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses magazine, and Vice-President of the Australian Hydroponic & Greenhouse Association.

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PH&G July-August 2004 / Issue 77