Disease a blow to State's rice bowl

NATHAN DYERCountryman

WA’s fledgling rice industry has been dealt a blow with the discovery of a destructive fungal disease in rice crops in the State’s north.

The Department of Agriculture and Food WA (DAFWA) last week confirmed the discovery of rice blast in crops in the Ord River Irrigation Area near Kununurra.

The find is a kick in the teeth for Kununurra farmers looking for a broadacre crop to underpin the $220 million expansion of the Ord River farming scheme and could force them to destroy about 650 hectares of rice crops.

It is believed the disease exists in most rice-growing countries but has been detected only once before in Australia, in Queensland two years ago.

The department’s Kimberley manager Noel Wilson said the department had implemented quarantine measures restricting the movement of vehicles and machinery linked to rice crops in the Ord Valley.

He said the department was conducting surveillance to determine the spread of the disease and had contacted the Consultative Committee on Emergency Plant Pests, responsible for co-ordinating national responses to plant pests.

A spokeswoman for the department said growers could seek compensation for destroying crops if they were ordered to do so. It is understood the disease, which can kill growing plants, cannot be eradicated.

If the disease was to spread, it could devastate Australia’s $800 million rice industry.

Ricegrowers’ Association of Australia president Les Gordon said the industry body would keep a close eye on the situation in the Ord.

“One of the issues we have is that our (Australian) varieties have been bred in the absence of blast and we don’t know how they will react to it,” he said. “We suspect that they are not very resistant to it.”

Mr Gordon said that while the disease’s presence was a setback for the Ord industry, he was confident quarantine protocols around Australia’s main rice-producing regions in southern NSW were adequate to ensure it did not spread.

Mr Wilson said DAFWA was working closely with local growers to monitor the disease, which could be spread by wind, water and by human and animal movements.

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