Deadly disease threatens banana industry

Anand Ramsing, right, Louis Kenson, center, and Roy Bhagwan cut down inferior banana trees and fruits at Jarikaba plantation, 30 kilometers (19 miles) west of Paramaribo, capital of Suriname.
Associated Press / Edward Troon

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has warned that without global efforts to respond to a fungal disease affecting banana production, the US$36 billion global industry, which provides a source of income or food to some 400 million people around the world, is under threat.

The agency and its partners said US$47 million is needed to tackle the new and deadly Tropical Race 4 (TR4) strain of Fusarium wilt disease, part of which would be used to provide swift on-the-ground assistance to countries facing new outbreaks.

“Fusarium wilt disease has been a major challenge in the history of banana production,” said FAO’s head of Plant Protection, Clayton Campanhola, at a meeting of experts at FAO headquarters here.

“After the devastation TR4 recently caused to bananas in parts of Asia, we have to fear its spread in Africa and the Middle East and also to Latin America (in the Caribbean), and consider it as a threat to production globally,” he added.

Campanhola said that fusarium wilt disease, colloquially known as Panama Disease, brought Indonesia’s banana exports of more than 100,000 tons annually to a grinding halt, causing annual losses of some US$134 million in revenue in Sumatra alone.

Currently, he said the disease is severely affecting more than 6,000 hectares in the Philippines and 40,000 hectares in China.

Following a case in Mozambique in December, which prompted an emergency intervention from FAO, the agency and a group of international experts agreed on a framework for a global intervention-and-prevention program that would work to prevent outbreaks, manage existing cases and strengthen international collaboration and coordination.

Supporting ongoing research, educating producers and assisting governments in developing country-specific policies and regulation for prevention of the disease would be key aspects of the program, the FAO said.

It said fast responses are vital because of the speed with which the disease spreads and the damage it can cause.

Once contaminated, the FAO said an affected field becomes unfit for producing bananas susceptible to the disease for up to three decades.

In the early 1900s, the FAO said the fungus spread across Latin America, causing over US$2 billion in losses and nearly decimating the global banana export industry.

“Bananas are the world’s most consumed and exported fruit,” said Fazil Dusunceli, a plant disease expert with FAO’s Plant Protection Division. “With 85 per cent of all bananas being produced for domestic consumption, you can imagine the impact of this disease on food security and livelihoods in developing countries (including the Caribbean).”

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