Kids were tasting fruit for the first time
Professor Emeritus Dick Drew has devoted his life to battle a devastating pest. During one project 10 to 15 years ago, he came across young children who had never eaten fruit before.
It’s a testament to perseverance that one man could devote his entire life to one specific species of fly. However, he is no ordinary man and similarly it is no ordinary fly.
In the red corner is the fruit fly, a global pest and one of Australia’s most difficult and costly biosecurity challenges and a major pest for many countries throughout Asia and the South Pacific.
In the blue corner is its archenemy, Professor Emeritus Dick Drew.
Why the blue corner? Because that colour, cobalt blue to be exact, is one Professor Drew discovered to be a weak point of Australia’s major fruit pest—the Queensland Fruit Fly.
Fruit fly damage is estimated at $300 million per annum in control costs and lost markets to Australia. In Asia and South Pacific countries fruit flies have at times recorded close to 100% devastation of some orchards and crops.
Griffith University entomologist Professor Drew has spent his working life identifying fruit flies throughout Australia, Asia and the South Pacific to determine which species cause the most damage and how to stop them.
He first developed inexpensive protein baits from waste products from the beer manufacturing process as a part of an Australian Aid funded research program. Vietnamese farmers, some of whom who had faced close to 100% losses, saw that loss reduced to 30% as a result of the yeast protein bait.
It also saw an end to the thousands of litres of a “worthless” manufacturing waste product flowing into the Mekong River, now that it could be repurposed. Earlier work with similar beer plants in Tonga have also reduced waste product from being discharged into streams or seas and polluting reefs.
However, the 30% loss remained unacceptable to Professor Drew, who heads the International Centre for the Management of Pest Fruit Flies at Griffith. He continued to research how to target the mature female egg-laying fruit fly, which showed no interest in the protein baits, but were the ones that laid the eggs allowing the larvae to feast on the fruit.
The need for a solution was exacerbated in Australia when organophosphate cover sprays were banned due to health concerns, a regulation adopted by many countries around the world. The ban left growers with limited options.
In 2016, in the culmination of a lifetime of research, Professor Drew developed the world’s first non-toxic fruit fly lure, and one that targeted mature females.
It was Professor Drew’s five decades of research into every facet of the fruit fly that led to the winning combination of odour, colour and shape for the unique lure and trap system.
His collaboration with Australian company AgNova Technologies has seen “Fruition”, a safe and non-toxic product released to market. It lures and traps the female Queensland fruit fly without attracting and killing other beneficial insects.
The Queensland fruit fly is widely recognised as one of the worst economic pests of fruit and is found throughout the eastern seaboard of Australia and the Northern Territory.
Fruition is expected to not only help save crops but may open closed overseas export markets in countries fearful of the bio menace taking hold.
Japan currently bans more than 100 types of fruit from Australia due to the pest. Similarly many Oceanic, Asian and Chinese markets are closed due to the threat posed by our fruit flies.
Of the 800 known species of fruit fly in the world, Professor Drew has documented 500 new species to science.
While he marvels at their beautiful colours, he refers to it as bird watching down a microscope, he knows of the heartbreak caused and witnessed firsthand the difference his work has made to many in third world countries.
“They are devastating in the damage they cause. There are 50 per cent of children in Papua New Guinea that suffer severe malnutrition because of lack of fruit and vegetables in their diet. Much of that is due to the fruit fly,” he said.
“At one project in North Vietnam, 10 to 15 years ago we came across young children who had never eaten fruit before,” he said. “Now, as a result of what we did, kids were tasting fruit for the first time.”
His work has helped changed subsistence farming to small commercial farming where growers are selling their excess produce to fund equipment purchases.
“It’s helped some farmers buy motorbikes, even a house,” Professor Drew said.
The beauty of his Queensland fruit fly knockout is that it can be replicated for other types of fruit flies.
“The colour will change. We’ve already done that work for most pest species in Australia,” said one of the world’s foremost experts in fruit flies.. “We just have to work it out for South East Asia and the Pacific and that’s fairly simple.”
Already, a number of countries have sought his expertise to tailor his unique lure and bait system to further combat the damage caused by fruit flies.
That’s a knockout for Professor Drew, courtesy of a cunning fruit punch.