The world’s first crop of soil-less grown bananas is set to be harvested this week as part of an association between the Wageningen University in the Netherlands and Chiquita Brands International.
The initiative is part of an effort by scientists and researchers who are trying to stop the devastating Panama disease tropical race IV (TR4) from further spreading.
The soil-dwelling fungus is wreaking havoc on plantations around the world and posing a huge threat to the Cavendish variety which accounts for 95% of all bananas sold in the US$36 billion industry, according to The Financial Times.
The Cavendish is vulnerable to epidemics as its monoculture is based on a single genetic clone. Before the Cavendish became the dominant variety, the Gros Michel banana was the most widely eaten banana, but it was wiped out in the 1950s by the first strain of the disease.
The TR4 strain, which was identified in Taiwan in the 1960s has spread throughout south-east Asia and Australia. The industry’s main concern is that it will reach Latin America and wipe out the farms which provide three-quarters of the world’s banana exports.
“The core of our strategy is to diversify banana production,” Gert Kema, a leading banana expert and the head of tropical phytopathology at Wageningen University, was quoted as saying.
The fungus, which spreads through soil movements that happen due to workers or machinery, among other things, affects the roots of the banana trees, withering the fruit.
Growing bananas in a greenhouse on nutrients and rockwool, made from Basalt rock and chalk, will insulate the plants from disease, the article said.
Several efforts are also being carried out by private companies or research organizations to either eliminate the disease or cure it. Many of these efforts are focused on developing a disease-resistant variety.
Currently, there are no available solutions besides trying to prevent the transfer of infested soil, infected plants and contaminated materials to clean areas.