FIRE ants – which devastated crops in the United States – are marching towards southeast Queensland's $230 million Lockyer Valley food bowl for the very first time, the director of the Biosecurity Queensland's Fire Ant Control Centre confirmed on Wednesday.
The Lockyer Valley produces most of Australia's beetroot and 40 per cent of the vegetables consumed in Southeast Queensland.
Fire ants were first found in Greater Brisbane in 2001 and until now have mostly spread though urban areas like Ipswich, Logan and southern Brisbane.
On Wednesday, Biosecurity Queensland's director Sarah Corcoran confirmed fire ants were on the move in two directions; towards the Brisbane CBD, but, more worrying, towards the Lockyer Valley's crucial vegetable grounds.
She said recent fire ant nests have been found in New Farm Park, at Chelmer and at St Lucia, but the biggest concerns was recent nests near the Lockyer Valley.
Why has the fire ant issue emerged?
Ms Corcoran on Wednesday said fire ant infestations have now been found at Blenheim, Forest Hill and Laidley in the Lockyer Valley in February and March 2015.
"It would have serious impacts on the production of the crops if they become established," Ms Corcoran said.
"They actually eat various crops," she said.
"Maize production in the United States has actually been cut by 65 per cent in one of their states impacted by fire ants."
Fire ants damage irrigation channels, farming equipment, destroy crops beside dams and can prevent livestock from getting to water, she said.
Ms Corcoran warned that the experience in the United States – where there is no co-ordinated fire ant control program – showed that uncontrolled fire ants spread 48 kilometres a year.
She said despite Queensland's fire ant controls, this put the internationally-recognised Lockyer Valley "salad bowl" region at high risk.
BioSecurity Queensland officers met with Lockyer Valley regional Council on Tuesday to discuss the serious ramifications of fire ants becoming established in the region.
Why is it important?
The Lockyer Valley is southeast Queensland's biggest vegetable producer with produce estimates ranging from $190 million to $230 million a year.
Lockyer Valley council mayor Steve Jones who was at the briefing said the issue was now critical for southeast Queensland - and for Melbourne and Sydney - who get their vegetables from the Lockyer Valley during their winters.
"Mate, it is extremely important," Cr Jones said.
"At certain months of the year, we feed 90 per cent of the nation in vegetables," he said.
Cr Jones said the situation was able to be contained if funding for control programs could be guaranteed.
However, he said there would be a tremendous impact on field pickers and the farms if the fire ants became established.
"On a big night we could have 300 semis packed with vegetables pull out of the Lockyer in a night," he said.
"A lot of Australia doesn't really understand that a big farm here might have 700 to 800 acres of one vegetable."
Cr Jones said Queensland's annual $4 million share of the annual $17 million to fight fire ants, collectively provided by all States and the federal government, needs to be assured to protect the vegetables.
"Fortunately up here a good job is being done," Cr Jones said.
"If they find a nest they eradicate it," he said.
"But, if they interrupt or redirect those funds, that won't happen."
He warned a high-profile national approach to containing fire ants was needed.
"Above all that, this is an issue for the people in the suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne," he said.
"They have had one (fire ant) outbreak down at Port Botany already (a 500-hectare exclusion zones has been declared).
What should happen now?
Cr Steve Jones and Biosecurity Queensland's Sarah Corcoran say a ministerial taskforce should be established by Agriculture Minister Bill Byrne to protect the Lockyer Valley cropping areas.
"I am going to talk to the Agriculture Minister and we need to seriously take the message to the highly-populated areas of Australia," Cr Jones said.
"The people in the streets of Sydney and Melbourne might wonder why they are being asked to contribute to this issue - but if they have seen what this pest does - well we just need to get this message out."
Cr Jones said the ministerial taskforce should include farmers' representatives and a federal government agricultural department expert.
"I would also like to see the federal government minister like Barnaby Joyce and the shadow minister come here," he said.
"I would like them to come to the Lockyer Valley and I would like to show them what happened and talk to them about the seriousness of this pest."
Ms Corcoran said the recent fire ant nests found in the Lockyer Valley had changed the recent emphasis of Biosecurity Queensland.
"It has been around limiting lifestyle-type issues," she said.
"But we have now had to turn our minds to agricultural impacts; what chemicals are available; do the chemicals we have available work in these situation, because people still have to produce crops," she said.
Ms Corcoran said agricultural machinery was the biggest problem for producers and government agencies trying to combat the emerging problem.
"It is machinery, particularly the agricultural machinery that they use and often share between properties that is the problem," she said.
"They have to make sure they are washed down, that they are not carrying any soil which could potentially carry the ants."
She said dogs trained to scent the hormone that fire ants secrete in order to retrace their way to a nest have begun work in the Lockyer Valley.
How are fire ants controlled?
A ground corn soaked in soyabeanb oil and a powerful insect growth hormone - similar to that used in flea collars - is placed around the fire nests as an ant bait.
Worker ants take bait granules back to the nest, where they are passed among other ants and fed to the queen. These baits sterilise the queen and stop the larvae from developing. The worker ants are not replaced and the colony dies out.
Aerial baiting is also used where there are fewer homes and cropping areas are not widespread.
Where are fire ants found now?
Fire ants are in Ipswich, Logan and southern Brisbane up to Carindale, St Lucia and New Farm.
Isolated infestations have been found in the Scenic Rim, Gold Coast, near Gladstone and now, the Lockyer Valley.
They spread to Sydney near Port Botany in December 2014.
In March 2015, the Sydney Morning Herald reported a 500-hectare surveillance area was declared around Port Botany by the New South Wales Department of Primary Industries.