Interview by Ana Larcher Carvalho and Ulli Schiefer
Dr. Polychronis Rempoulakis Leading Entomologist for the Branch of Biosecurity and Food Safety of New South Wales
By Ana Larcher Carvalho and Ulli Schiefer
Subject of the Interview: National Action plans for fruit flies in Australia.
I grew up in Crete, Greece in a family of farmers cultivating olives, and from young age I got involved in pest control activities to reduce the damage from olive fruit fly (Bactrocera oleae) to our family and village olive oil production. During my university years as Biologist, I got interested in the developing of alternative control methodologies for fruit fly control and continued with Postgraduate studies researching on the same topic (MSc working with Mediterranean fruit fly (Ceratitis capitata), and PhD on the mating behaviour of olive fruit fly.
My involvement with research on those insects later developed into an interesting and rewarding international career that blessed me with many experiences and good friends all over the world. For more than a decade I travelled and worked in several countries and projects either as a researcher, consultant or participating in United Nations expert missions. During those years I developed a working relationship with International Atomic Energy Agency, since the broad topic of my research was on the development, refinement and implementation of the Sterile Insect Technique, an environmentally friendly control method, particularly suitable for application against fruit fly insect pests.
In 2015 my family and I arrived in Australia, to participate in a large SIT program, and I established my research team in one of the prominent universities here working with a group of PhD students and technical officers on various aspects of the method. In 2018 I assumed the responsibilities of Leader Entomologist for the Branch of Biosecurity and Food Safety of NSW DPI, the governmental research organisation of the state of New South Wales. Since then, in this capacity I assist and supervise a diverse team of entomologists that work on a very broad spectrum of research activities, and also conducting my own research on fruit flies, to a lesser extent than before of course.
Biosecurity is indeed a shared responsibility (incidentally this is the motto of our Branch!), meaning that all shareholders, government, research providers, industry and the general public have an important role to play in protecting our natural environment, precious resources and production capabilities. Our role in NSW DPI is vital in ensuring that the State has the ability to prevent entry and respond rapidly in novel incursions of pests, pathogens and diseases that might arrive from other areas within Australia or from abroad.
For this reason, we develop and maintain a strong component of diagnostic capacity, emergency response capacity and planning, and also a strong policy framework. In the unfortunate event that a pest or pathogen succeeds to be established here, we continue our support to the industry with expert advice, extension activities, and most importantly with quality research outcomes for pest control (development of novel control methods, insecticide resistance management, molecular diagnostics, integrated pest management and many more).
Our organisation NSW DPI is more than 120 years old, and proud on standing in the global top 1% in terms of scientific output in Agricultural Sciences. We have a strong capacity in research with more than 600 scientists in 23 research stations in NSW. To succeed in this mission, we are not alone, but we closely collaborate with other states, universities, funding agencies, and other research providers in consortia involving complex projects, joint appointments and co-investment to research for the benefit of our primary industries that have a significant socio-economical value in society, for the domestic and export value of quality agricultural and livestock products but also for the employment and wellbeing of our regional and rural communities.
Australia has a robust system of funding for the agricultural research through the Research and Development corporations (RDC’s): currently there are 15 of them, covering the vast majority of commodities nationwide. Those non for profit organisations, supported by the Federal Government, are responsible for commissioning large research projects with an applied orientation that answers the needs of the primary industries. That ensures that the research that we conduct has the ability to be easily implemented and addresses the needs of the industry (producers), providing solutions in pre and post-harvest pest reduction, improved market access plans, etc.
Every sector of primary production (i.e. commodity) is suffering from a variety of pests and diseases, it will take a long list to enumerate all here, but I can note that for fruits and vegetables fruit flies are among the most destructive insect pests. Also, for leafy vegetables recent introduction of leaf miners are of great concern, and also moths (e.g. Fall armyworm and other Lepidoptera) create great damage. A combination of chemical control, with approved and strictly controlled insecticides, biological control agents, mass trapping and more complex control methods, (including SIT) are among the weapons in our arsenal for dealing with those pests.
We work extensively on fruit fly behavioural ecology, spatial ecology, nutrition and chemical ecology. Those areas can find applications in the optimisation of the Sterile Insect Technique, novel trapping methods, lure and kill methods, spacing and positioning of trapping systems for detection and surveillance and more. In our work we also focus on post-harvest disinfestation methods with fumigants, altered atmospheres and combination treatments, and also phytosanitary irradiation, where Australia is at the forefront with cutting edge commercial irradiation facilities. Finally, we work on Integrated Crop Management methods and systems approaches for improved market access. Another important component of our work is in the biosecurity preparedness, where we develop science-based scenarios for timely and effective response to future threats, such as the Oriental fruit fly (Bactrocera dorsalis).
To my view, the major threats we will face in the future are: Increased mobility of insect pests due to commercial activities, an expansion and shift of range of pests due to climate change (currently we work a lot on modelling this, considering several global warming scenarios), and a reduction to conventional control methods, mainly due to phasing out of harmful chemical insecticides and the developed resistance.
Stable isotope studies on fruit flies of Economic importance (Photo credits, Aaron Darc)
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