Australia: the implications of NT's banana quarantine lift

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Australia: the implications of NT's banana quarantine lift

The Northern Territory government’s recent decision to lift banana quarantine restrictions has sparked a heated debate in Australia over what this could mean for the spread of Panama Tropical Race 4 disease into other states. The scrapped measures were deemed ineffective, however their disappearance could potentially place the country's banana industry under the threat of extinction. At we hear from growers about the damages already inflicted, the likelihood of infection in other states and what containment measures are in discussion.

In the last 15 years, banana growers in Northern Territory (NT) have seen the Panama Race 4 disease destroy over 300 acres of plantations, leaving only one commercial grower, the Darwin Banana Growing Co.

While one company remains, others have been forced to turn to other crops like melons and mangoes.

The Race 4 is a soil-borne disease, containing the Fusarium wilt fungus that attacks the roots of nearly all banana varieties, including the Cavendish variety, restricting their water access and eventually drying out the plant.

Robert Borsato, owner of the last commercial plantation in NT, says he has been fighting the disease for more than 15 years.

"It’s a fairly devastating disease - once the farm is infected, we have to replant every couple of years, otherwise the percentage of trees is below the production," he tells

"We can’t keep our banana trees in the ground for any extended period of time."

He says the farm had to persist with growing the Cavendish Williams variety for some time, as a result of its higher tolerance to the Race 4.

"Because we’ve been dealing with this disease for a number of years up there, we’ve been making selections of our own plants that have shown a bit more resistance to the disease.

Harry Theoharous, the national banana manager of distribution company Moraitis Group, also feels the recent quarantine changes could have a devastating effect on Australia's banana industry.

"It’s a very dangerous situation. It's a poor decision, because if it does spread, there’s no coming back from it." he says.

He mentions the vulnerable state that the quarantine lift could have on the close-knit North Queensland banana plantations.

"If it gets up there, to the growing regions [in North Queensland], where 90% of the bananas are grown within a 150km (93mi) radius it would potentially wipe out the whole industry.

The major North Queensland growing regions concentrate around the towns of Tully and Innisfall, with over 1,500 banana farms spanning across the entire state.

Cutting costs

The NT Department of Resources has declared the disease endemic, despite the strict quarantine measures that were in place between states as well as amongst plantations.

Australian Banana Growers' Council (ABGC) president Doug Phillips, having returned to Queensland from a two-day trip to NT and speaking with the government, said he believes the decision was based on resource and cost constraints.

"I think just like every government Government in Australia, there’s pressure on resources and budgets as well, so given that the measures that were in place were relatively ineffective and they didn’t really know how far it [the disease] was, they decided to declare it as being endemic within the Northern Territory," he says.

The department believes the previous quarantine measures did not control for all major factors contributing to the spread of the disease, including stormwater run-off, wildlife and alternative weed hosts.

The difficulty of identifying the location of the Race 4 in the soil has also contributed to the decision to lift the measures.

"The other problem that they [the government] had was that they didn’t know how far this particular disease is spread, and it’s very difficult to detect. There’s no way of just doing a test on the soil to determine where it is or where it isn’t," says Phillips.

Theoharous believes that if the Race 4 does spread, it would be reflected in the high cost-production model of growing bananas.

"Keeping in mind that in Australia we have a high input of labor into bananas, and we need a high yield because our returns are so low back to the growing base, anything that affects the yield probably doesn’t make it viable for them [farmers] to grow bananas.

"If this got out and affected the crop by 20-30 percent, you’d see most growers go out of business."

Alternative solutions

Phillips claims that no commitment would be made from the NT government towards a substitute quarantine strategy, however several state governments still implement certain measures to protect their borders from contamination.

"They’re not going to go to any alternative legislative quarantine measure at all. There are still restrictions imposed by Queensland and WA (Western Australia), on measurements that can occur between borders and they’re still in place."

The Department of Resources claims the current quarantine entry conditions include no movement of soil, any banana plant or plantain material. Equipment or machinery may enter under a permit, with a cleaning inspection and certification at departure and arrival in Queensland and Western Australia.

Phillips, acting on behalf of the peak banana industry body, claims the governments are working on a wider national scheme national scheme to improve Australia's biosecurity measures.

"Basically we’ve asked all the various state governments to participate in a national management approach - just to work together to see what can be done collaboratively to try and control the spread of this.

"We have a plant protection program within the industry that has funds available. Tropical Race 4 was being looked as, as part of that program we would probably be increasing the focus on this disease."

He claims a disease-tolerant variety would be difficult to obtain and efforts should focus on exploring more viable methods of production.

"We’ve got a two-part approach, one trying to contain it within the Northern Territory and then the second option is trying to identify tolerant varieties and also production methods, because I don’t think you can find a resistant variety that is commercially viable.

"That does two things for us; firstly it provides an opportunity for the Northern Territory banana industry to build up again, and diversity and growing regions is important to our industry; secondly it also provides an insurance policy if the disease were to spread to other growing regions within Australia.

He says while the disease is a concern for the industry, it hasn't yet spread so there is no need for people in other regions to panic.

"It is in the Northern Territory, and that’s where we’d like to keep it."

Related story: Australian banana growers 'outraged' over quarantine lifting decision

Photo: Australian Bureau of Meteorology

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