Dr Ross McKenzie The Startup Business

How Technology Is Helping Biosecurity & Sustainability Of An Industry

With more than 60,000 kilometres of coastline, Australia has some of the strictest and most comprehensive biosecurity practices in the world.

When you arrive in Australia, say at Sydney International Airport, you will be greeted to routine inspections and are required to make statutory declarations of what you are carrying and where you have been.

An inconvenience yes, but the ramifications of pest and disease outbreaks can be catastrophic for Australia.

What many people do not realise though, that even once you arrive in Australia, there are specific exclusion zones across the continent, that prevents the movement of targeted pests and diseases.

Once such pest is the fruit fly, or specifically the Mediterranean fruit fly and the Queensland fruit fly that together, threaten a substantial portion of Australia’s AUD 9-billion-dollar horticultural industry.

One of the very first jobs I had when I left high school thirty-five years ago, was to go fruit picking on a pear and stone fruit orchard near Shepparton in regional Victoria. I remember the farmer, Mr Burns, explaining to me of the problem of fruit fly!

Now this was also the time when I embarked on my “first career” as an agricultural scientist – where traditional farming methods was typically using chemical controls. In fact, it was the beginning of what we called “no till or conservation farming” in which the use of broad spectrum chemicals such as glyphosate (i.e. Monsanto’s Roundup) was applied to kill “weeds” reducing the need for the farmer to plough their fields keeping more organic matter in the soil structure.

But it was also a time when a different type of farmer, or land custodian, started to be heard. These voices were often ridiculed by the so called agricultural scientists (like myself) because they challenged the accepted norms, but slowly people did start to pay attention to.

One of these voices for many years has been Lynton Greenwood of Greenwood Orchards at Merrigum in Victoria. Lynton is the current custodian of the orchard founded by his grandfather back in 1906 – 109 years ago!

Under the guidance of Alex Podolinksy who championed Rudolf Steiner’s approach of a more environmentally stable agricultural method known as Bio-Dynamic, Greenwood Orchard became “Demeter” certified back in 1968. In other words, they have been producing certified organic produce for almost 50 years – long before organic was trendy!

This fact alone is a great story of business sustainability across three family generations and showing industry leadership despite what your neighbours may be saying.

But let’s get back to the main story and this is about where the problem of fruit fly control and organic farming collides.
In case you missed it, you cannot control fruit fly with artificial chemicals on organic farms. But I hear you say that Greenwoods Orchard is in the centre of a fruit fly prone area and when there is a threat of an infestation, you need to act fast so what do you do then?

Furthermore, complicating this, is the fact that fruit flies are tiny and they are highly mobile! So up until recently, when the fruit fly population started to increase, it was not recognised until they reached endemic levels.

Enter technology, smartphones, and community!

With the support from tech savvy partners like Advance Computing who are based at Kyabram, just down the road from Lynton’s orchard, the idea came about to develop a smartphone app which people could record fruit fly infestations. Then linking this up with the local hardware stores who provided fruit fly traps, the whole community (even supported by the local Rotary Club) could get involved recording fruit fly capture including number, time and GPS location data as well.

Then coupled with the support of another partner – a small company called “Microsoft”, Advance Computing was then able to build a solution around the Azure cloud infrastructure.

As a result, real time data of fruit fly populations across a broader geographical area are now captured via the “crowd” and be accessed immediately with decisions now made at the most optimal times. This means ultimately having the potential to save millions of dollars of damaged produce each year.

While the complete eradication of the fruit fly pest would be a desirable objective, this collaboration between the 109 year old Greenwood Orchards, the local technology partner – Advance Computing, and the local community, has from a holistic point of view, significantly enhanced the control of fruit fly infestations – and that has to be a good thing.