Business News of 2014-04-16

FAO warns of debilitating banana disease

The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) is warning countries to step-up monitoring, reporting and prevention of one of the world’s most destructive banana diseases -- fusarium wilt -- which recently spread from Asia to Africa and the Middle East, and which has the potential to affect countries in Latin America.

The TR4 strain of the disease, which is also known as Panama disease, is posing a serious threat to production and export of the popular fruit, with serious repercussions for the banana value chain and livelihoods, the FAO has said.

Banana is the eighth most important crop in the world and the fourth most important food crop among the world’s least-developed countries, according to FAOSTAT, the UN agency’s data-gathering and analysis service.

Gianluca Gondolini, Secretary-General of the World Banana Forum whose Secretariat is based at FAO headquarters and promotes sustainable banana production and trade, said any disease or constraint that affects bananas is striking at an important source of food, livelihoods, employment and government revenues in many tropical countries.

A plant pathologist at FAO, Fazil Dusunceli, said countries need to act now if we are to avoid the worst-case scenario, which is massive destruction of much of the world’s banana crop. “The spread of fusarium wilt banana disease could have a significant impact on growers, traders and families who depend on the banana industry,” Fazil noted.

Fusarium wilt is caused by the fungus Fusarium oxysporum. The disease is soil-borne and the fungus can remain viable for decades.

Once the disease is present in a field, it cannot be fully controlled by currently available practices and fungicides. The best way to fight the disease is to prevent its spread, which includes avoiding movement of diseased plant materials and infected soil particles.

While other races of the disease have existed for many years, TR4 has caused significant losses in banana plantations in Southeast Asia over the last two decades, and has recently been reported in Mozambique and Jordan.

TR4 infects the Cavendish banana varieties which dominate global trade, as well as other susceptible varieties used for local consumption and markets. Despite damage to the banana plant and to production, the fruit itself remains edible.

“We need to raise awareness of this threat, coordinate efforts among countries and institutions for effective implementation of appropriate quarantine measures, and also work with banana producers, traders, plantation employees and smallholder farmers to help to minimise spread of the disease,” Dusunceli said.

He was highlighting the importance of research in better understanding the disease and developing alternative varieties that are disease-resistant. FAO’s information note stresses the importance of using disease-free seedlings and avoiding movement of infected soil and plant materials into, and out of, growing areas through transportation, visitors or other means.

“A concerted effort is required from stakeholders including the industry, research institutions, governments and international organisations to prevent spread of the disease,” the note reads.

FAO and its partners, including the World Banana Forum (WBF), the scientific community and the banana industry are among those making efforts to increase awareness of the inherent threat of TR4.

The issue will be on the agenda of a series of upcoming meetings in Kenya, South Africa, and Trinidad and Tobago, with the aim of addressing a range of issues related to TR4, including developing action plans for its prevention, monitoring and containment.

At the country level, the FAO specifically advises awareness-creation at all levels and adoption of appropriate risk assessment, surveillance and early-warning systems, and implementation of phytosanitary measures to prevent spread of the disease through agricultural practices, irrigation and drainage systems, transportation, vehicles, containers, tools or visitors.

FAO also advises preventive measures including quarantines, the use of disease-free planting materials, prevention of infected soil and planting materials going into and out of the farms, and disinfection of vehicles.

Capacity building in National Plant Protection Organisations (NPPOs) in planning, extension and research, including the use of rapid and accurate diagnostic tools and training of technical officers, producers and farm workers in disease identification, prevention and management under field conditions, as well as, appropriate instructions to visitors, were recommended.