Myrtle rust has now been confirmed in Waikato nursery

A positive detection of myrtle rust has been made in the Waikato region, the Ministry for Primary Industries announced this afternoon.

The fungal plant disease was identified in a small number of plants at a nursery in Te Kuiti. The new location was found as a result of MPI tracing sales of plants from another positive nursery.

MPI has personnel on the ground in Te Kuiti and restrictions have been imposed on the movement of risk goods from the property.

The property will be treated with fungicide.

As with all other finds to date, MPI will continue to search surrounding areas for signs of the fungus.

The new find, along with confirmations on a further three properties in Taranaki, brings the total number of confirmed infected properties to 16 nationally.

Most of the properties are in Taranaki, along with two confirmed in Northland and the latest one in Waikato.

The disease-causing fungus has been found at a mix of properties including nurseries, plant retailers and distributors, an orchard and private gardens.

MPI is receiving unprecedented support from members of the public, with some 420 reports of suspected symptoms to its 0800 number.

Of those reports, a small percentage require sampling and testing. The Ministry is able to distinguish the highest risk reports from photographs.

Myrtle rust only affects plants in the myrtle family. Any rust symptoms on other plants can immediately be discounted.

The ministry has thanked people for their vigilance. Their reports are helping to build a picture of where the rust is present and inform plans being made for the future management of the fungus.

The ministry continues its effort to try to contain the rust at infected properties, but is also realistic that this is a huge challenge and New Zealanders may have to learn to live with it.

People can report suspected signs of myrtle rust to MPI’s Exotic Pest and Disease Hotline on 0800 80 99 66.

The public are urged not to touch the rust or the plant. The location should be noted and photos taken of the symptoms and the plant.

Marsden Fund preliminary proposals for 2017

Preliminary proposals from AgResearch, Landcare Research, Plant & Food Research and Scion are among those submitted to the Marsden Fund.

This year there were 1106 preliminary proposals, 776 standards and 330 fast-starts.

This was similar to last year’s 1097, the third year of a slightly reduced number of applicants.

In total, 252 applicants have been invited to submit full proposals – 161 standards and 91 fast-starts.

The Royal Society, which has posted details HERE, expects about 140 proposals will eventually be contracted. The projected amount of funding available is approximately $84.8 million (excluding GST).

Myrtle rust – MPI reports two more cases confirmed in Taranaki

Two further properties in Taranaki have been confirmed positive with myrtle rust infection today. Both are plant businesses, one a further nursery in Waitara and the other a garden centre in New Plymouth.

This brings the total number of known affected properties to five – a nursery and adjoining property in Kerikeri, two plant nurseries in Waitara and a garden centre in New Plymouth.

The ministry says the new finds are disappointing but not unexpected. It expects to continue to find new locations of infection given the most likely scenario is that the fungal spores entered New Zealand from Australia during a major wind event.

All infected properties are “restricted places”, meaning there are restrictions on the movement of plants or other risk materials off the sites. Locations are being treated with fungicide, risk plants are being safely destroyed, and surveillance is underway in the areas surrounding the properties for signs of the disease.

The ministry says there are two main reasons why the rust is being found in plant nurseries.

* First, growing conditions there are ideal for the fungus with many vulnerable young plants in sheltered, warm and damp environments.

* Second,there has been a large amount of communication with the nursery industry and growers have been particularly vigilant in checking their plants.

Myrtle rust (Austropuccinia psidii) is also known as guava rust and eucalyptus rust.

It is a serious fungal disease that affects plants in the myrtle family, which includes pōhutukawa and mānuka. The first detection of the disease in mainland New Zealand was at a Northland nursery early this month.

The fungus attacks various species of plants in the Myrtaceae family, also known as the myrtle family. It is found in many parts of the world including New Caledonia and all along Australia’s eastern seaboard.

It is widespread on Raoul Island in the Kermadec group, about 1,100km to the north-east of New Zealand.

Myrtle rust spores are microscopic and can easily spread across large distances by wind, or via insects, birds, people, or machinery.

The spores are thought to be capable of crossing the Tasman Sea from Australia to New Zealand on wind currents.

Myrtle rust could affect iconic New Zealand plants including pōhutukawa, mānuka, rātā, kānuka, swamp maire and ramarama, as well as commercially-grown species such as eucalyptus, feijoa and guava.

Severe infestations can kill affected plants and have long-term impacts on the regeneration of young plants and seedlings.

Its impacts overseas have varied widely from country to country and plant species to species.

Myrtle rust shows up as yellow bumps and brown patches on leaves.

It generally attacks soft, new growth, including leaf surfaces, shoots, buds, flowers, and fruit.

Symptoms to look out for on myrtle plants are:

* bright yellow powdery eruptions appearing on the underside of the leaf (young infection)

* bright yellow powdery eruptions on both sides of the leaf (mature infection)
brown/grey rust pustules (older spores) on older lesions.

Some leaves may become buckled or twisted and die off.

Wounded plants send out alarms to warn their neighbors

Uh, oh. How sensitive will you be to the feelings of the grass when you next mow the lawn – and how will vegans respond to the news?

University of Delaware studies of Arabidopsis thaliana, also known as mustard weed, have found that when a leaf was nicked, the injured plant sent out an emergency alert to neighboring plants which began beefing up their defenses.

A wounded plant will warn its neighbors of danger, says Harsh Bais, an associate professor of plant and soil sciences in UD’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

“It doesn’t shout or text, but it gets the message across. The communication signals are in the form of airborne chemicals released mainly from the leaves.”

Connor Sweeney, a high school student, delved into work in Bais’s lab at the Delaware Biotechnology Institute after school, on weekends and during summer breaks, culturing an estimated thousand Arabidopsis plants for experiments. Seeds were placed in Petri plates and test tubes containing agar, a gelatinous growing medium.

Each batch of seeds would germinate after about six days, transforming into delicate-stemmed three-inch plants with bright-green leaves.

One day in the lab, Sweeney put two plants a few centimeters apart on the same Petri plate and made two small cuts on the leaf of one to simulate an insect’s attack.

What happened next, as Sweeney says, was “an unexpected surprise.”

The next day, the roots on the uninjured neighbour plant had grown noticeably longer and more robust–with more lateral roots poking out from the primary root.

“It was crazy–I didn’t believe it at first,” Bais says. “I would have expected the injured plant to put more resources into growing roots. But we didn’t see that.”

Bais asked Sweeney to repeat the experiment multiple times, partitioning the plants to rule out any communication between the root systems. In previous research, Bais had shown how soil bacteria living among the roots can signal leaf pores, called stomata, to close up to keep invasive pathogens out.

“The reason why the uninjured plant is putting out more roots is to forage and acquire more nutrients to strengthen its defenses,” Bais says. “So we began looking for compounds that trigger root growth.”

Sweeney measured auxin, a key plant growth hormone, and found more of this gene expressed in neighboring plants when an injured plant was around. He also confirmed that neighbour plants of injured plants express a gene that corresponds to a malate transporter (ALMT-1). Malate attracts beneficial soil microbes, including Bacillus subtilis, which Bais and his colleagues discovered several years ago.

Apparently, uninjured plants that are in close proximity to injured ones and that have increased malate transporter associate more with these microbes. These beneficials bond with the roots of the uninjured plants to boost their defenses.

“So the injured plant is sending signals through the air. It’s not releasing these chemicals to help itself, but to alert its plant neighbors,” Bais said.

What are these mysterious concoctions, known scientifically as volatile organic compounds, and how long do they persist in the atmosphere or in soil for that matter–is it like a spritz of perfume or the lingering aroma of fresh-cooked popcorn?

“We don’t know yet,” says Bais, who has already started this next leg of the research. “But if you go through a field of grass after it’s been mowed or a crop field after harvesting, you’ll smell these compounds.”

Sweeney first visited the Delaware Biotechnology Institute as an eighth grader, for a boot camp on basic laboratory procedures, which sparked his interest in research. He has since won the 2016 Delaware BioGENEius Challenge, was a 2016 international BioGENEius Challenge finalist and was named a semifinalist in the 2017 Regeneron Science Talent Search. Later this year he will head off to MIT, double-majoring in economics and biological engineering.

He is interested in looking at the agricultural side of science, saying it may not sound sexy, but everybody needs to eat. So if you can use cutting-edge technologies in genomics that feed more people while lessening the environmental footprint, “that’s where I want to be”.

UCSB scientists report on the effects of landscape characteristics on insecticide use

The effects of certain landscape characteristics on insecticide use depend on context and crop type, an American study has found.

The research has been reported (HERE) by the University of California – Santa Barbara.

Over the past half century, food production has intensified to meet the growing demand, the UCSB report says. And as agricultural fields have become ever larger, more pesticides are required to enhance yield.

Among increasingly huge spreads of single crops, insects tend to thrive as the landscape leaves little habitat for natural enemies such as birds or other predators. whether this plays out in reality has been difficult to determine scientifically.

Empirical landscape-scale studies of the drivers of agricultural insecticide use have produced ambiguous results and aggregated statistics make it difficult to tease apart the effects of underlying components.

A new study by UC Santa Barbara scientists has overcome that obstacle. Using detailed data from roughly 13,000 fields observed from 2005 to 2013 in Kern County, California, Ashley Larsen and Frederik Noack parsed the different effects of landscape characteristics such as crop diversity, field size and cropland extent on insecticide use. Their findings appear in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“If we are to minimize the negative effects of insecticides on human and environmental health, it is critical to understand if and how we can leverage landscape features to reduce insecticide use,” said lead author Larsen, an assistant professor in UCSB’s Bren School of Environmental Science & Management.

“Unlocking the different landscape components across multiple crops and spatial scales provides a novel understanding of which characteristics are likely to increase or decrease insecticide use for specific crops.”

The analysis by Larsen and Noack, a post-doctoral researcher at the Bren School, demonstrated potentially valuable benefits to crop diversity and to smaller fields. However, these benefits were highly dependent on crop type.

The research showed that while crop diversity reduced insecticide use, its impact was small in comparison to the differences in insecticide use between different crops.

“The choice of crops we produce or the type of crops we eat has a much larger impact on overall insecticide use than do landscape characteristics such as crop diversity or cropland extent,” Noack said.

As surrounding grape crop diversity increased, for example, insecticide use fell by nearly 8 kilograms per hectare.

“Grapes use about 49 kilograms of insecticide per hectare, so an 8 kg reduction is a fairly substantial fraction,” Larsen explained. “For oranges, the reduction is less than 2 kilograms per hectare, which is not significant, and for carrots there is no effect at all.”

Moreover, the investigators consistently found that larger fields use more insecticide.

A huge swath of single crop may serve to meet growing demand, but it also provides an uninterrupted breeding ground for insects, which in turn may promote increased chemical treatment to control the pests.

While many factors are at play, on the ecological side the paper was a big advance because scientists haven’t had this type of fine-scale understanding before, Larsen said. The researchers had been able to show that landscape drivers of agricultural insecticide use are very crop specific.

Edible insects could supplement our diets and help reduce harmful emissions

Eating insects instead of beef could help tackle climate change by reducing emissions linked to livestock production, an Edinburgh University news item (HERE) says.

It cites research which suggests replacing half of the meat eaten worldwide with crickets and mealworms would cut farmland use by a third, substantially reducing emissions of greenhouse gases.

While consumers’ reluctance to eat insects may limit their consumption, even a small increase would bring benefits, the research team says. This could potentially be achieved by using insects as ingredients in some pre-packaged foods.

Using data collected primarily by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, the scientists have compared the environmental impacts of conventional meat production with those of alternative sources of food. It is the first study to do so.

Researchers at Edinburgh and Scotland’s Rural College considered a scenario in which half of the current mix of animal products is replaced by insects, lab-grown meat or imitation meat.

They found that insects and imitation meat – such as soybean-based foods like tofu – are the most sustainable as they require the least land and energy to produce. Beef is by far the least sustainable, the team says.

In contrast to previous studies, lab-grown meat was found to be no more sustainable than chicken or eggs, requiring an equivalent area of land but using more energy in production.

The team, which includes scientists involved in the N8 Research Partnership’s AgriFood programme, says halving global consumption of animal products by eating more insects or imitation meat would free up 1680 million hectares of land – 70 times the size of the UK.

Similar land savings could also be made by switching from the current mix of animal products to diets higher in chicken and eggs, the team says.

They found that the land required to produce these was only marginally greater than for insects and imitation meat.

As well as being a major contributor to human-induced greenhouse gas emissions, current livestock production has other environmental impacts.

Globally, pasture covers twice the area of cropland, and livestock consume around a third of all harvested crops.

The research, published in the journal Global Food Security, was supported by the UK’s Global Food Security Programme and the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme. It was carried out in collaboration with the University of York, Karlsruhe Institute of Technology and the Centre for Australian Weather and Climate Research.

New Zealand futurist Robert Hickson, on his Idealog blog, has written about changing dietary habits and trends and challenges associated with traditional western food consumption.

In a recent post (HERE), he noted:

Insects aren’t yet big on fancy restaurant menus in the US. But they are a gaining popularity in Japan. The UK has at least one restaurant specialising in our invertebrate friends. And Ikea has been thinking about introducing insect meatballs for a couple of years. A Swiss supermarket is planning to sell burgers and meatballs made from mealworms from next month.

New Zealand is no stranger to edible invertebrates, if only occasionally. I couldn’t find reports of insect meals being a staple in New Zealand, but at least two companies offer gourmet arthropod treats – Crawlers and Anteater. Some other food stores offer products containing cricket flour.

Hickson further noted that lab-grown meat prices are dropping rapidly and producers of meat-free burgers “are on a PR offensive”.

And the world’s largest pork producer, Smithfield Foods, is hoping to become a major supplier of organs for human transplants.

In short, agricultural and social changes will influence why and what we farm. It obviously will influence the relevant science, too.

Budget 2017 provides an extra $74.6m to further grow business R&D

Science and Innovation Minister Paul Goldsmith has announced an additional $74.6 million in funding through the Innovative New Zealand programme in Budget 2017 to meet the growing demand for Callaghan Innovation’s research and development Growth Grants.

The additional funding means a total of $657.2 million is now available over four years through the Growth Grants programme.

The new funding follows on from the $761.4 million investment in Budget 2016 through the Innovative New Zealand package and continuing investment in science and innovation over recent years.

New data released earlier this year by Statistics New Zealand showed a significant increase in the sums Kiwi companies are spending on R&D. In the two years to 2016 business R&D increased by 29 per cent and Callaghan Innovation grant recipients increased their own R&D spending by 46 per cent.

Growth Grants were designed to provide a predictable, rules-based platform for businesses to increase their investment in R&D and encourages the development of a strong business R&D ecosystem in New Zealand.