Melaleuca alternifolia at four weeks after inoculation with the myrtle rust virus. Louise Morin, of the CSIRO
Melaleuca alternifolia at four weeks after inoculation with the myrtle rust virus. Louise Morin, of the CSIRO

Plant plague $100m threat

AUSTRALIA’S biosecurity experts have been criticised for not acting earlier to prevent the spread of Myrtle rust disease that is now threatening the region’s $100 million tea tree industry.

A frustrated Tony Larkman, the Australian Tea Tree Industry Association’s development officer, said despite industry protests the national biosecurity authority refused to take the Myrtle rust threat seriously when the highly transferable disease was first discovered on the NSW Central Coast in April last year.

“As an industry we are not happy with how this has been managed,” he said.

“We made a lot of noise at the time and we were simply ignored.”

Plant biosecurity initially made a decision in April not to try to control the disease, Mr Larkman said. After a few months it decided to try and control it, but it was “too little too late”.

“This is equine influenza for plants and just because they don’t run around on a track, we got ignored.

“We are very distressed and angry about how this has been handled.”

As reported yesterday Industry and Investment NSW has confirmed Myrtle rust, which originated in South America, had now infected 140 properties on the mid-south and North Coast.

There are confirmed outbreaks of the disease in nurseries in Byron Bay and Alstonville and investigations are continuing about a possible outbreak in Lismore.

It is estimated there are about 300,000ha of lucrative tea tree under plantation in NSW, with the majority on the Northern Rivers.

“We are incredibly nervous,” Mr Larkman said. “We are resigned to the fact it’s not ‘if it gets into our plantations’ but ‘when’.

“Our biggest problem is with the new strain of tea tree we have got. They are constantly growing and constantly in flush, and that’s when the rust is at its most dangerous.”

He described the recent humid and wet conditions as “the perfect breeding ground” for the rust that produces lesions on young, growing leaves and shoots.

Researchers were examining the possible use of four fungicides under an emergency permit, to eradicate the rust once it was detected in plantations, Mr Larkman said.

Reg Lehman, general manager of research and development at Integria Health, which owns the Thursday Plantation brand and is one of the country’s largest producers of tea tree products, said the biggest fear gripping the industry was the lack of understanding of how the Myrtle rust would react.

He said in the best-case scenario there would be minimal effect on tea trees, but in the worst-case scenario the rust could contaminate the oil and producers would not be able to meet quality standards, meaning the industry, which has an annual retail turn-over of more than $100 million, would be stopped in its tracks.

“At the moment, we don’t know the effect this will have on our industry, and that’s the difficulty,” Mr Lehmann said.

“From what we have seen, Myrtle rust is quite a vigorous disease and we are worried what it will do to supply.

“The question is will the rust contaminate the tea tree oil, which means we won’t be able to reach the international standard.”

A Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry spokesperson yesterday dismissed allegations its biosecurity National Management Group had been slow to respond to the disease threat.

“The National Management Group reacted swiftly to the discovery of Myrtle rust, but it was clear from the outset the disease would be very difficult to eradicate,” an emailed statement from the department said.

“It should be remembered that in general terms, rust diseases are difficult to deal with as they spread easily, and for this particular disease there are only a few options to control outbreaks.”

“From the outset we had only limited knowledge of what types of plants it may infect, how it would spread, and what damage it would actually do under Australian conditions.”


Early identification of this rust is vital to eradication efforts. To report suspect cases call the Exotic Plant Pest Hotline: 1800 084 881

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