The TR4 strain of Panama disease, a soil-born fungus that attacks plant roots, is deadly for the Cavendish banana that makes up about 95 per cent of supplies to importers, including North America and Europe, Fazil Dusunceli, an agriculture officer at the FAO, said by phone this week from Rome.
The fruit is under assault again from a disease that threatens the popular variety that Americans slice into their cereal or slather with chocolate and whipped cream in their banana splits. But aside from its culinary delight, the banana is the eighth most important food crop in the world, and the fourth most important one for developing nations, where millions of people rely on the $8.9 billion industry for their livelihood.
TR4 first appeared in Asia in the 1990s. Inexorably, it spread through Southeast Asia, destroying hundreds of thousands of acres of banana crops throughout Australia, Malaysia, China, the Philippines and Indonesia. TR4 spreads via water droplets, dirt on shoes and equipment, and any other method that allows soil to travel from point A to point B.
The fungal disease recently spread from Asia, where it’s already caused significant losses, to Africa and the Middle East, and the FAO believes Latin America could be next. That would ramp the crisis up considerably: About 70 percent of the world’s banana exports are grown in the region. And it would do more than remove the fruit from grocery store shelves: Bananas are a key source of food in many tropical countries.
Gert Kema, the director of a banana research programme at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, said: “It’s not a question of whether it will arrive but when. There’s no prevention.” The fungus’ spores stay in the soil for decades so, even if a crop is destroyed, any new bananas grown will also be infected.
So far it affects the Cavendish banana variety, which accounts for 47 per cent of global production.
At the country level, FAO specifically advises:
- Awareness raising at all levels and adoption of appropriate risk assessment, surveillance and early warning systems;
- Implementation of phytosanitary measures to prevent the spread of the disease through agricultural practices, irrigation and drainage systems, transportation, vehicles, containers, tools or visitors;
- Preventive measures, including quarantines, the use of disease-free planting materials, prevention of movement of infected soil and planting materials into and out of farms, and disinfection of vehicles;
- Capacity building in National Plant Protection Organizations (NPPO) in planning, extension and research, including the use of rapid and accurate diagnostic tools;
- Training of technical officers, producers and farm workers in disease identification, prevention and management under field conditions, and appropriate instructions to visitors.
To raise awareness, the FAO said the issue will be on the agenda of a series of upcoming meetings in Kenya, South Africa, and Trinidad and Tobago, with the aim of addressing a range of issues related to TR4, including developing action plans for its prevention, monitoring and containment.
The FAO said while the banana crop is vulnerable to a number of diseases in various parts of the world, including the Black Sigatoka disease, Xanthomonas Wilt (BXW), Bunchy Top Disease (BBTD) and Fusarium Wilt, Fusarium’s soil-borne nature makes it “especially challenging”.
Global exports reached a record value in 2011 and totaled 18.7 million metric tons, making bananas the world’s most widely-traded fruit, according to the most recent FAO data. The US is the top importer, followed by Belgium, the data show. Belgium‘s Port of Antwerp is the world’s largest banana port, it says.
US consumer prices for bananas were 59.9 cents a pound in February, 2.2 per cent higher than an almost three-year low reached in October at 58.6 cents a pound, according to data from the Bureau of Labour Statistics. The export price of bananas from Ecuador, the world’s biggest shipper, and Central America for US destinations was $966.85 a ton in March, the highest in 18 months, according to the International Monetary Fund.