The banana industry on alert: sudden disease and no cure could end the production of this fruit

“The most serious threat in decades”, This is how the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA) called the fungus Fusarium.

It is a strain race 4 tropical (R4T) of the pathogenic biological agent it has the ability to cause a contagious disease that inhabits the soils of crops characterized by the wilting and death of the popular fruit, and that can affect the land for more than three decades.

Worst? There is currently no cure for this fungus.

Gert Kema, scientist in charge of the Laboratory of Phytopathology (science that studies plant diseases) at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, stated in a discussion organized by IICA that this particular strain It attacks the “Cavendish” banana variety, which currently accounts for 50% of global food production and is the only one that is massively marketed in Latin America, the Caribbean and the West in general.

This type of fruit has been dominant in global markets for 70 years due to its natural resistance to Fusarium race 1, which had decimated the production of the Gros Michel variety, the most consumed until then.

Chile, According to data from the latest report from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), It is the second largest importer of tropical fruit with more than 261 thousand tons in 2019.

Chelly Hresko, Head of Innovation in Disease Research and Development and Agricultural Efficiency at Bayer Pharmaceuticals Biotechnology Organization mentioned in the same talk that The main problem with the fungus and the reason for the alert is that there is currently no chemical that can serve as a fungicide. “We cannot count on the ‘magic’ of chemistry to get rid of this disease. All we can do, while developing scientific knowledge, is train growers about the best forms of containment. “Hresko argued.

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Microscopic image of the Fusarium fungus.

The disease, now a global threat, was first detected in Jordan, but, according to Kema, it would have originated in Southeast Asia, specifically in Indonesia, which spread throughout the region, then progressed westward to countries such as India, Pakistan, the Middle East, Africa and, later, Colombia, one of the main producers of the fruit in South America.

The scientist added that with the current Fusarium fungus, “We are faced with a situation that, in a way, is a repetition of the history that happened with the Gros Michel variety.”

The presence of the R4T strain in Latin America was detected for the first time in Colombia, being officially confirmed in 2019 by the Colombian Agricultural Institute (ICA), which detected it in plantations in the north of the country.

Lorena Medina, a member of the IICA Agricultural Health and Food Safety Unit, mentions that one of the Difficulties in stopping the spread is due to the fact that the disease can be transported by people, animals, the substrate trade, water, or by vegetative parts such as leaves, contaminated fruits, among others.

While there are no official world figures, Medina indicates that the fungus has affected approximately 15,700 hectares of banana plantations in the Philippines. In the Chinese provinces of Guangdong and Hainan the loss figure amounts to more than 70% of total crops.

However, this threat has another important consequence: the subsistence of workers dependent on plantains.

“It may be surprising how important this fruit is to many people, especially vulnerable people whose food choices are limited. It represents up to 25% of the calories they incorporate daily. And it is cultivated in 135 countries, so it supports the income of many small producers”Hresko assured.

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An Algerian farmer controls bananas on his banana farm in Sidi Fredj, about 40 km west of the capital Algiers in Algeria. Photo: Ramzi Boudina / Reuters.

In economic terms, according to Medina, the annual losses caused for countries where the fungus is already present exceed 121 million dollars. Nations like Taiwan have been the hardest hit, with revenue declines of more than US $ 253 million.

The IICA member adds that the disease can affect almost all varieties of banana both commercially and domestically, and, considering that more than 400 million people depend on the cultivation of tropical fruit as a source of food and income worldwide, the consequences of the proliferation of the fungus in the producing regions “would be very serious”.

As a precautionary measure, specialists maintain that hygiene measures should be maintained for those who are near the crops, in addition to recommending that producers reduce the recurrent visit to the plantations, and if they receive visitors, they should “arrive clean and leave clean”, so as not to run the risk of bringing or carrying the disease with them.

Hresko indicated that the first disease caused by the Fusarium fungus, in the first half of the 20th century, which caused the death of the Gros Michel variant, compared to the current strain, had expanded at a lower rate, however, the researcher mentioned that the movement restrictions caused by the pandemic may serve to delay the spread of TR4.

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