Scientists have warned that increasing banana disease known as Fusarium wilt places Nigeria and other developing countries at huge risk of experiencing hunger if not properly tackled. Ese Awhotu writes on the implication
AO and its partners say that a global effort is needed to prevent the rapid spread of the deadly Fusarium wilt disease in bananas, which poses 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 mass plant die-offs.
Scientists have warned that the world’s banana crop, worth £26 billion and a crucial part of the diet of more than 400 million people, is facing “disaster” from virulent diseases immune to pesticides or other forms of control.
Alarm at the most potent threat, a fungus known as Panama disease tropical race 4 (TR4) has risen dramatically after it was announced in recent weeks that it has jumped from South-east Asia, where it has already devastated export crops, to Mozambique and Jordan.
A United Nations agency revealed that the spread of TR4 represents an “expanded threat to global banana production”. Experts said there is a risk that the fungus, for which there is currently no effective treatment, has also already made the leap to the worlds most important banana growing areas in Latin America, where the disease threatens to destroy vast plantations of the Cavendish variety. The variety accounts for 95 per cent of the bananas shipped to export markets including the United Kingdom, in a trade worth £5.4bn.
Scientists are particularly concerned about the impact of TR4 across the developing world, where an estimated 410 million people rely on the fruit for up to a third of their daily calories.
According to one estimate, TR4 could destroy up to 85 per cent of the world’s banana crop by volume.
However, 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: preventing future outbreaks, managing existing cases, and strengthening international collaboration and coordination among institutions, researchers, governments and producers.
Supporting ongoing research, educating producers and assisting governments in developing country-specific policies and regulation for prevention of the disease would be key aspects of the program.
Overall funding needs for the work run in the order of $47 million, FAO estimates. Part of that would be used to provide swift on-the-ground assistance to countries facing new outbreaks.
“Fusarium wilt disease has been a major challenge in the history of banana production,” said FAO’s head of Plant Protection, Clayton Campanhola, 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.”
“Bananas are the world’s most consumed and exported fruit,” added Fazil Dusunceli, a plant disease expert with FAO’s Plant Protection Division. “With 85 percent of all bananas being produced for domestic consumption, you can imagine the impact of this disease on food security and livelihoods in developing countries.”
According to FAO’s, it plans 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 tonnes annually to a grinding halt, causing annual losses of some $134 million in revenue in Sumatra alone. Currently the disease is severely affecting more than 6,000 ha in Philippines and 40,000 ha 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 spreading of the new Fusarium wilt strain T4 has raised fears of a repetition of the disastrous outbreak of the disease in the early 1900’s, when a different strain of the fungus (Race 1) spread like a wildfire across Latin America, causing over $2 billion in losses and nearly decimating the global banana export industry.
The world’s export banana was saved only by switching from the Gros Michel banana – then the industry favourite – to the Cavendish, which is resistant to Race 1.
Cavendish served the global banana supply and export industry well so far. But the TR4 strain of the fungus is forcing the industry, scientific community and governments to once again find alternative banana varieties to replace the Cavendish type.
Developing new banana varieties is not an easy task and takes time due to sterility problems, so scientists have to make extra effort to develop types that are preferable and disease resistant at the same time. One promising banana in this respect, known as GCTCV-219, resembles the Cavendish banana in both taste and shape. It was developed through induced mutations and is now being promoted to be planted in infested fields in Philippines to serve the Japanese market.
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 FAO’s Dusunceli.
But experts also stress that the most effective way of combating 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.
Appropriate regulation, along with the guidelines provided by the International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC), is essential to achieving this.
The FAO warning is significant in Nigeria where the virulent Banana Bunchy Top Virus (BBTV), had been detected to be ravaging plantain and banana crops in the country as at 2013.
The virus has been threatening to knock the country off its number three position in Africa in the production of the crop.
Because of the danger posed by this disease, the federal government was reported to have set up emergency committees and work groups to collaborate with relevant local and international research organisations to end the raid of the menacing plant disease.
The outbreak of the disease was announced by researchers of the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) in 2013, with a warning that farms in Nigeria, the second largest producer of the crop in the West Africa, were the hardest hit by the disease.
According to FAO estimates, banana is grown in nearly 130 countries. Uganda is the largest producer of banana and plantain in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), followed by Rwanda, Ghana, Nigeria, and Cameroun.
Experts have warned against the movement of banana planting materials from infected areas to uninfected areas to check the spread of the disease.
First discovered in 2012 by IITA in collaboration with the University of Ibadan and the NAQS, the disease is now widespread in Ilashe, Odan-Itoro, Ido-Ologun, and Igbogila, in Ogun State.
Data shows that systematic studies on yield losses have not been done but empirical observations indicate 50 per cent to 90 per cent loss in the affected region.
Nigeria produces 2.74 million tonnes of banana annually, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), making the crop one of the important staples in the country.
Devastation by BBTV or any other emerging fungus disease on banana fields will have a negative impact on the country’s economy, and thwart efforts towards food security as well as economic welfare as rightly stated by FAO.