Manjree Agarwal researches the disease-ridden khapra beetle. Right: the foreign pest contaminates grain supplies, which can lead o food poisoning and skin lesions. Source: Graeme Paton and Manjree Agarwal.
By Graeme Paton
A new app created by biosecurity scientists at Murdoch University is set to shield Aussie farmers from $1.83 billion damage from an infectious foreign pest.
Thekhapra beetle, named “Australia’s most unwanted pest” by the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service, inspireMurdoch expert Dr Manjree Agarwal and her research team to protect local grain from its blight.
Dr Agarwal said while 75 per cent of grain crops contaminated were destroyed by the beetle’s “ravenous appetite” mainly its native India, there would be a threat to WA’s grain farming industry if the pest broke through quarantine.
The as yet unnamed app uses special “hyperspectral” imaging to identify the beetle with much higher accuracy than current methods which rely on scientists identifying the species using the naked eye.
Australia’s grain market benefits significantly from its khapra beetle free reputation, however, Dr Agarwal warns that this prestige is threatened by the beetle’s insidious nature.
“The beetle can survive without food for up to 14 months and if it reaches Australia it could find its way to farmland in no time at all just as it has in other countries,” Dr Agarwal said.
“If this happens Australia could lose $1.8 billion in destroyed grain alone and a further $4 billion by losing our status as a premium khapra beetle free grain status in export markets.”
The existing detection method can be problematic because the beetle is minute and almost indistinguishable from similar but harmless Australian Warehouse beetles.
“We will program this app with a large database of hyperspectral images that will help it recognise the beetle, and with the press of a few buttons it will be able to scan and identify contamination instantly to an accuracy unobtainable by human eyes,” Dr Agarwal said.
The Murdoch biosecurity team is confident that the app could be implemented by Australian airports and shipyards soon after her research concludes early next year.
Video: Dr Manjree Agarwal discusses a recent quarantine close-call in dealing with the khapra beetle in WA. She believes events like these reveal the need for better technology in fighting off the species.