FAO calls for global response to deadly banana disease - FreshFruitPortal.com

FAO calls for global response to deadly banana disease

FAO calls for global response to deadly banana disease

The United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and its partners say that a global effort is needed to prevent the rapid spread of the deadly Fusarium wilt disease in bananas. banana_87251656 - small

The disease is caused by the pathogen Fusarium oxysporum, and is said to pose a severe threat to economic welfare and food security in developing countries.

Plant scientists have been warning for several years that the world's most popular banana variety, the Cavendish, has fallen victim to a new strain of the fungus causing wilting and the widespread death of plants.

Now the FAO and a group of international experts have agreed on the framework for a global program on Fusarium wilt that would work on three main fronts of action.

The three fronts are preventing future outbreaks, managing existing cases, and strengthening international collaboration and coordination among institutions, researchers, governments and producers.

Key aspects of the program would include supporting ongoing research, educating producers and assisting governments in developing country-specific policies and regulation for prevention of the disease.

The FAO estimates funds of around US$47 million are needed for the program, and part of that would be used to provide swift on-the-ground assistance to countries facing new outbreaks.

Tropical Race 4 (TR4) of the Fusarium wilt fungus is considered a top threat to global banana production worth US$36 billion, which provides a source of income or food to some 400 million people.

"Fusarium wilt disease has been a major challenge in the history of banana production," FAO head of plant protection Clayton Campanhola said at a meeting of experts at FAO headquarters last week.

"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, and consider it as a threat to production globally."

Spread and Containment

The FAO's plan for a new intervention and prevention program comes on the coattails of a recent case in Mozambique, prompting an FAO emergency project in December to contain the fungus in the African country.

Earlier outbreaks of the TR4 strain of the Fusarium wilt disease, colloquially known as Panama Disease, brought Indonesia's banana exports of more than 100,000 metric tons (MT) annually to a grinding halt, causing annual losses of some US$134 million in revenue in Sumatra alone.

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

Fusarium wilt spreads rapidly through soil, water and contact with contaminated farm equipment and vehicles, making swift responses essential to preventing incursions and outbreaks.

Once soil is contaminated with the fungus, an affected field becomes unfit for producing bananas susceptible to the disease for up to three decades.

The case for genetic diversity

Experts warn that the panacea to Fusarium wilt does not lie only in finding a new immune variety, but to making the banana production systems as a whole more genetically diverse and resilient.

Better use of available local varieties is key to building resilience to disease, preventing food insecurity and major economic losses, according to plant disease expert Fazil Dusunceli.

"We are seeing that production systems with more diverse varieties and crops are more resilient to the disease," he said.

While many wild varieties of bananas and plantains are not edible, they hold a wealth of untapped genetic material that - with increased investment in research - could be used to make the banana production and industry more resilient to disease.

But experts also stress that the most effective way of combatting the disease is vigilance to employ preventive measures to stop entrance of the fungus into a country or region, and rapid containment if it does.

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