Threat posed by Panama disease

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In the 1950's a strain of 'Panama disease' known as race 1 wiped out almost all banana plantations in Central and South America, taking with it the  most popular banana at the time, the 'Gros Michel'. In the second half of the 1900s banana producers across the world switched to a different cultivar, the 'Cavendish' variety that accounts for 47 percent of the world's banana production.

Alarmingly, a strain of Panama disease, known as 'TR4' (tropical race 4) has recently been found in Mozambique and Jordan, "posing a serious threat to production and export". The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) warned in a recent report that the disease has already hit tens of thousands of hectares of banana crop in Southeast Asia where banana farming is a key revenue source.

In response to the threat posed by TR4 to millions of producers and workers in the banana industry, the World Banana Forum has set up a Task Force to combat the disease, which includes awareness campaigns, training programmes, introducing management practices, and the development of new crops resistant to TR4.

Nearly all commercial banana plants are clones and this makes the global banana cultivation extremely prone to disease epidemics. If one banana plant gets the disease, other nearby plants will likely become contaminated. The disease is spread through short distances via root to root contact and through soil. Once established, TR4 cannot be controlled by spraying with common fungicides and there is no treatment for the disease, or known disease-related crops. The only current means of control are quarantine measures to prevent its spread through movement of infected soil and plant material.

Mohamed Vala, the national director of Agarian Services in Mozambique's Ministry of Agriculture, has identified a company called 'Matanuska' in the Monapo district of Northeast Mozambique whose production has been infected by the TR4 disease. According to Vala the, "company has so far lost 60 hectares out of an estimated area of 1,400 hectares". The involvement of Mozambique authorities in dealing with the deadly disease is so far limited being the first time TR4 has entered the south African country, further highlighting the need for an increased awareness of the dangers of TR4.

Although the fungus constitutes no risk to public health it is vital that this disease be isolated and prevented from spreading further. Bananas form a crucial part of the diet of 400 million people worldwide with trade alone worth £26 billion a year. Thousands of hectares of Cavendish have already been destroyed with the damage caused by this second outbreak already surpassing the US $400 million mark. It is feared that this number will rocket without further awareness and training aimed at working to manage and prevent the deadly TR4 disease to the world's most favourite fruit crop.

Read the Fairtrade Foundation blog about 'the reality behind the bananageddon headlines'.

Read 'FAO urges countries to step up action against destructive banana disease' press release and call for action. 

Read  'Going bananas? The serious threats facing the world's favourite fruit'

Photo: Promusa