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FAO report says Caribbean bananas under watch

Sunday, November 10, 2019

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UNITED NATIONS (CMC) – The United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) says Caribbean bananas are “under watch”.

In its latest “Food Outlook” report, the FAO said the world's most traded fruit is in danger of becoming scarcer, amid rising prices, as a fungal strain spreads across banana plantations in the region and Asia.

The “Food Outlook” assesses the hypothetical market risks posed by the Tropical Race 4 (TR4) disease, on bananas – a vital cash crop threatened by the pathogen— which infects roots and stems.

Conservative estimates suggest that TR4 will take its greatest toll in Asia, FAO warned, “which could lead to a two per cent drop in global output of bananas, cut some 240,000 jobs within the industry, and trigger a near 10 per cent rise in prices over less than a decade”.

“The TR4 threat evokes the ghost of damage done by an earlier fungus to the Gros Michel banana variety in the 1950s,” the FAO said.

It said that fungus had triggered billions of dollars in losses and lead to the rise in popularity of the Cavendish, currently under attack by TR4.

The FAO said bananas can account for one quarter of daily caloric intake for people in rural areas of some countries, and in some cases account for 75 per cent of small farmers' total income.

“The tropical fruit faces elevated vigilance at production sites worldwide, with thorough research on TR4 ongoing, as there is currently no fully effective cure or treatment,” the FAO said.

Last month, in a renewed effort to help protect banana crops in Latin America and the Caribbean, the FAO launched an emergency project to curb major plant losses threatened by a fungal disease.

 Under FAO's Technical Cooperation Program, the FAO said the project will work to fight the spread of Fusarium wilt, a fungal plant disease that can wipe out plantations of banana crops, upon which millions of people depend for their livelihoods.

FAO assistant chief and Regional Representative for Latin America and the Caribbean, Julio Berdegué, stressed that “the role of bananas in providing food and household income in this region cannot be understated”.

According to the FAO, bananas are the most traded fresh fruit in the world, and the banana sector serves as an essential source of employment and income for thousands of rural households in developing countries. 

While India is the top banana producing country in the world, the FAO said Latin American and Caribbean region ranks among the top 10, with Ecuador leading the world in banana exports.

The TR4 strain of the fungus – Fusarium oxysporum f.sp. cubense – was first detected in Ecuador's neighbour, Colombia, in July, where 175 hectares of banana farms were put under quarantine by the Instituto Colombiano Agropecuario (ICA), an entity looking after the country's agriculture and fishing sectors, the FAO said. 

It warned that the possibility of the disease spreading “would have devastating impacts for farmers and their families across the region”.

The FAO said bananas are of particular significance in some of the least developed and low-income countries, where beyond contributing to household food security, they generate income as a cash crop.

 For some small farmers, banana crops account for 75 per cent of their total monthly income, the FAO said. “The fungus's ability to wipe out entire plantations could threaten critical food sources, household incomes and export revenues,” the FAO said. 

It said the TR4 pathogens deplete plants by attacking the roots and stems, including those of the Cavendish banana variety, one of the globally most popular. 

Though harmless to humans, the FAO said the fungus can easily spread through planting materials, and movement of infested soil particles on shoes, vehicles and in water.

Though research is ongoing, there is no fully effective treatment of soil or plants to control or cure Fusarium disease, the FAO said. 

In addition, fungal spores are able to lie dormant in soil for more than 30 years, and have proved resistant to fungicides, according to FAO's World Banana Forum, which addresses the fruit's sustainability challenges.

For these reasons, the FAO said TR4 is considered “the world's greatest threat to banana production”.

To help eradicate the disease, the FAO said it has been providing technical assistance by way of diagnostics and identifying risk pathways.

The agency recommends fortifying soil health and strengthening genetic resources to build resilience to the disease in the future.

Hans Dryer, who heads the FAO's Plant Production and Protection Division alerted countries to “be vigilant in monitoring and containing any TR4 cases”.


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