UN, partners launch campaign to tackle new fungus strain threatening bananas

Thursday, October 19, 2017

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ROME, Italy (CMC) — The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) says it is working with partners to help protect the world's banana crops from a new strain of fungus, known as Fusarium wilt TR4, which can last for years in the soil.

According to FAO, the “insidious” fungus poses major risks to global banana production and could cause vast commercial losses and even greater damage to the livelihoods of the 400 million people who rely on the world's most traded fruit as a staple food or source of income.

“We need to move quickly to prevent its further spread from where it is right now and to support already affected countries in their efforts to cope with the disease,” said Hans Dreyer, director of FAO's Plant Production and Protection Division on Wednesday.

He stressed that the resilience of banana production systems can only be improved through continuous monitoring, robust containment measures, strengthening local capacities and enhancing global collaboration.

The UN said Fusarium wilt TR4 was first detected in Southeast Asia in the 1990s and has now been identified at 19 sites in 10 countries.

The FAO said it launched with its partners – Bioversity International, International Institute of Tropical Agriculture and World Banana Forum – the global programme requiring US$98 million to contain and manage the new TR4 strain.

Without a coordinated intervention, scientists estimate that by 2040, the disease could affect up to 1.6 million hectares of banana lands, representing one-sixth of the current global production, valued at about US$10 billion annually.

The FAO said the programme is initially targeting 67 countries, aiming to reduce the potentially affected area by up to 60 per cent.

“The long-term resilience of banana production systems can only be improved through continuous monitoring, robust containment strategies, strengthening national capacities and enhancing international collaboration to deploy integrated disease management approaches,” Dreyer said.

He said the five-year programme is designed to build on existing initiatives tackling the disease and strengthen local technical capacities.

It will also support developing science-based technologies and tools through researching the fungus' biology and epidemiology, its detection and the development of resistant cultivars, among other things.

For areas where the disease is not present or first appears, Dreyer said inspection, surveillance and rapid response measures will be developed.

Where it already occurs, he said improved and integrated disease management techniques will be developed along with the search for and deployment of resistant varieties.

If effectively rolled out, it is estimated that every dollar invested in the programme today will produce benefits of between US$98 and US$196 in 20 years' time, according to FAO.

It said the fungus is caused by a new variant of the disease that had decimated Gros Michel banana plantations in the early 20th century, causing more than US$2 billion in damages and leading to its replacement with the Cavendish variety, which though resistant to the earlier strain has now succumbed to the new TR4 race.

TR4 has so far impacted nearly 100,000 hectares, which accounts for around half the bananas grown today, but also other cultivars that constitute key nutritional staples.

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