Banana threat

Banana threat

Board ramps up awareness campaign as fungus nears Jamaica

Senior staff reporter

Thursday, August 22, 2019

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EXCEPT for those in the agricultural sector, most Jamaicans have no idea what Fusarium oxysporum f. sp. cubense (Foc) Tropical Race 4 (or TR4) is, and can't imagine its potentially devastating effects on the island's banana and plantain crops.

The Banana Board is only too aware of the far-reaching impact of the soil-borne pathogen, and has therefore ramped up its public relations and awareness activities to alert farmers and other stakeholders.

At the moment, what it needs most is funding to conduct simulation exercises in order to be fully and practically prepared for the management of the disease, in the event that TR4 reaches Jamaica's shores.

“With the spread of Foc TR4 to the Western Hemisphere for the first time, preventative measures, such as widespread public awareness, in addition to other border protection initiatives, provision of emergency resources, and the simulation exercise for containment of the disease are now extremely necessary,” the commodity board said this week.

With TR4 having reached Colombia, The Banana Board's concern is the immediate threat of the plant disease spreading from that South American country to the island.

General Manager Janet Conie says this can happen via various means, including from people's clothing, and even construction equipment.

“We need a wider programme that speaks to everybody who goes to another country...especially agricultural workers, scientists, vets (etc), who go into agricultural areas where the disease is...they could bring it back on their shoes, on their clothes. So we need to now widen our public relations...we need posters in the airports.

“In Colombia and Costa Rica they have mats at each one of the gates, and your shoes are disinfected, [but] we also need to tell all travellers that any shoes that you wear in those places that are infected, you cannot bring them back here. We need to speak to Customs and the Trade Board for them to help us with implementing things like containers and earth-moving equipment that comes from China – those equipment have to be treated,” she explained.

She stressed that TR4 must be seen as an important issue, as 98 per cent of Jamaicans consume bananas, and about 64,000 farmers grow bananas for income.

“Whether they have one square that they sell every weekend, they still get a livelihood from it's not something that we can likely lose, and we really shouldn't lose our banana industry and then have to import,“ she said.

Conie pointed out that Ecuador, for example, treats one million containers annually, in order to safeguard their multibillion-dollar banana industry.

“Ecuador and Costa Rica have banned material that come into their country, whether it's a mat or a hat, or whatever — banana goes out, nothing comes in,” she stated.

The general manager argued that it is not only the formal ports that need to be safeguarded as Jamaica seeks to protect its banana industry, which has taken a number of hits over the years.

“We have informal traders, so we have to talk to the coast guard about not just looking for drugs, but contraband, like banana plants. So we have a lot of work to do to interact with the agencies to help us to keep this disease out,” she said.

She said the plant quarantine division of the Ministry of Industry, Commerce, Agriculture and Fisheries is critical in all of this, as well as the ministry's other agencies, including the Trade Board Limited.

A conversation, although broad, and one in which the link to the banana industry and the deadly TR4 may not be immediately apparent, has already begun internally at the ministry level.

Foc TR4 is a deadly disease of banana and plantain crops which is resistant to fungicides. This is the fourth strain of the disease, the first strain of which largely obliterated the most dominant variety of banana — Gros Michel — in the 1950s.

Tropical Race 4 is even more deadly. This is because all varieties of bananas and plantains are susceptible, including the cavendish group which replaced the Gros Michel, as well as the most commercially used variety of plantains in Jamaica, Conie told the Jamaica Observer.

“If you see any wilt on Cavendish, that is a big red flag — that's when you call us,” she said.

Despite the looming spectre of TR4, the banana industry has been doing very well in the wake of the battering from natural disasters over the years, Conie said.

Last year, farmers produced 67,000 tonnes of bananas and 49,000 tonnes of plantains — not enough to meet demand for commercial quantities.

Conie noted that, at the same time, the country imported US$900 million in chips products. Other by-products such as flour and puree are also imported.

In the meantime, until the funding becomes available to back the simulation programme, The Banana Board has been conducting a series of consultations with banana farmers and other stakeholders who are at the forefront of banana production, about protecting the industry from the disease.

Conie said that for now, farmers should treat as a red flag any sign of a wilt on any plant, and report it for investigation.

The general manager said, however, that while the industry remains on alert, the way forward is to seek out and introduce resistant or tolerant varieties, as was done when the first strain of the disease hit.

She said right now, there are no commercial varieties that are “readily accepted” by the market, because of the difference in taste.

Connie clarified though that, “we are not saying that people must accept these varieties that are less than what the market would demand, but from a food security standpoint, we need to make sure that we have a variety that we can use”.

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