Banana growers assured of govt support

By Manuel T. Cayon, Business Mirror

Posted at Nov 17 2011 10:31 AM | Updated as of Nov 17 2011 09:29 PM

DAVAO CITY - Agriculture Secretary Proceso Alcala assured corporate farms and small banana growers of full government support and intervention in containing the spread of the most virulent strain of the Panama disease, committing as much government budget as they would need and offering to provide alternative crops and support measures to farms already laid waste by the blight.

At a meeting on Wednesday with the Pilipino Banana Growers and Exporters Association (PBGEA) and the Federation of Cooperatives in Mindanao (Fedco), Alcala also directed agency officers and technicians to speed up the tracking and identification of infected farms and hasten the formulation of strict quarantine protocols for areas with banana farms and plantations.

Although he has approved a P20-million budget for the regional task force here, he assured the banana groups that “we can reallocate as much budget that we can put into this problem.” He said he could get this from both this year’s allocation and next year’s.

Stephen Antig, executive director of PBGEA, said he was pleased with the commitments of Alcala. “The P20-million budget is a good place to start,” he said.

A source from the regional office of the Department of Agriculture said Alcala already said “there would be no mercy” on the allocation of the budget to address the fungal attack.

Alcala said the onslaught of the Tropical Race 4 of the Fusarium oxysporum f. sp. cubense (Foc TR4) was worsened by the absence of a known cure to this strain, which also attacks other soft-stalked plants, such as tomatoes.

The fungus, whose first known strain wiped out the Gros Michel banana variety in Panama in Central America in the 1950s, is soil-borne and could be easily spread through the infected soil that clings to the feet of humans and the hooves of animals, by the infected soil carried by the tires of vehicles, or by the bolos used to cut the infected plants. The spread becomes faster and more threatening during floods.

Alcala gave assurances he will personally participate in the meetings while the focus is on the containment of the infection. He said the second meeting that would tackle the refinement of the protocols on strict quarantine measures will be held on Friday at the DA office in Quezon City.

Although Alcala said the infection appeared small and negligible, “there is still no known cure for it so the possibility of it spreading to other farms is dangerous.”

In late October, Ramon Meloria, spokesman of the Regional Task Force on Panama Disease, said some corporate farms had already reported damages and the DA also reported damage to 232 hectares in Davao City and Davao del Norte.

Jimmy Estimada, Fedco technical consultant, said the infection was also reported in New Corella, Davao del Norte, New Bataan and Compostela in Compostela Valley, and in Calinan, Davao City.

In New Corella, “One whole farm of seven hectares was affected and what’s worse is that this is an upland area and there is always the danger that the rainwater containing the infected soil could cascade to lowland farms,” he said.

Alcala, however, deferred the activation of the Mindanao task force on banana disease that was created by former Agriculture Secretary Domingo Panganiban through Memorandum Order 22 issued in June 2006. He said he will study the memorandum before making a decision.

In the protocols, Alcala suggested revisions in some measures, including the cutting of infected plants to a medium level that would not need the support of bamboo poles, and the search for more practical structures and affordable chemicals to be used as solutions in tire baths.

The PBGEA said the poles were needed to prop up the plants. The chemicals, on the other hand, cost P60,000 per one tire-bath solution that would last for three days. Both the tire-bath structure and the solutions would cost P900,000. “That would be costly for us,” he said.