Banana disease threatens to wipe out local plantations

By Jennifer A. Ng, Business Mirror

Posted at Sep 20 2011 11:12 AM | Updated as of Sep 20 2011 10:00 PM

MANILA, Philippines - Banana growers have expressed apprehension that the resurgence of a fungal disease could wipe out plantations in Mindanao, prompting them to call for the creation of a center that will conduct research on banana diseases.

The Pilipino Banana Growers and Exporters Association (PBGEA) noted that the banana plant ailment called Panama disease has found its way to Bukidnon in Mindanao where it has wiped out 1,200 hectares of banana plantation.

Local banana growers said the disease has contaminated some banana plantations in Compostela Valley and most recently in Sto. Tomas town in Davao del Norte province.

The Panama disease, also known as Fusarium wilt, has been dormant for the past 50 years but is now again appearing in some plantations in some countries.

Amid the growing concern of banana growers, PBGEA Executive Director Stephen Antig is urging the government to push ahead with a legislation creating the National Research, Development and Extension Center for Banana (NRDECB).

The NRDECB, said Antig in a statement, will conduct research on pests, diseases and other phytopathological factors that affect the growth of the banana industry.

There are two bills on banana research center pending in Congress now. One was filed by Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. at the House of Representatives seeking to create a banana research center at the University of Southeastern Mindanao in Davao City with an initial annual budget of P200 million. Sen. Antonio Trillanes filed a similar bill at the Senate.

Antig said the banana industry needs the government’s help in fighting the dreaded Panama disease in banana plantations, saying the private sector cannot do it alone. He said the creation of the banana research center would be a “bold step” toward finding a solution to address the Panama disease.

The PBGEA executive director also urged the government to reactivate the Mindanao Banana Disease Task Force that was created by the Department of Agriculture five years ago through Memorandum Order 22.

The task force, composed of stakeholders from the government and the private sector involved in the banana industry, was supposed to assess the occurrence of major banana diseases and determine the extent of damage to the banana industry, but was not able to take off the ground for lack of funding.

Antig urged the government?to provide funding for the task force so it can be used to address the Panama disease.

The task force, according to its mandate, can develop a strategic quarantine plan and recommend measures to contain the introduction and spread of any banana disease, including the Panama disease.

In an article, Dan Koeppel, author of Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World, said that before the Cavendish banana became the usual table fare, there was Gros Michel banana. It was bigger, tastier and hardier.

Introduced in the late 19th century, Gros Michel was almost immediately hit by the Panama disease that wiped it out by 1960. The Cavendish banana was adopted as the last minute substitute by the big banana companies Chiquita and Dole because it was resistant to that disease. But lately Cavendish has become vulnerable.

“There is no cure, and nearly every banana scientist says that though the Panama disease has yet to hit the banana crops of Latin America, which feed our hemisphere, the question is not if this will happen, but when. Even worse, the malady has the potential to spread to dozens of other banana varieties, including African bananas, the primary source of nutrition for millions of people,” Koeppel wrote.

Then the Panama disease reached Australia and in 2006 the floods from cyclone Larry spread the disease to healthy banana plants. The Australian banana industry used to face bright prospects but is now facing collapse.

Panama disease has yet to reach the banana plantations in Latin America and banana growers are hoping it will not.

The fight against the disease has shifted to the laboratory with biotechnologists trying to engineer Cavendish banana resistant to the Panama disease.

Antig said this is where the Philippines’ own banana research center can develop such Cavendish banana that will be resistant to the Panama-disease contagion.