Strain of Panama disease could soon spread to Latin America
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Strain of Panama disease could soon spread to Latin America

A strain of Panama disease which is devastating banana crops in Australia, Asia, and the Middle East, could soon wreak havoc on Latin American plantations.

Experts at Wageningen University and Research Centre in the Netherlands warn that it could just be a matter of time before the destructive fungus, Fusarium Oxysporum f. cubense, hits the region.  The strain which is spreading across the world’s plantations is known as ‘Tropical Race 4’ (TR4).

Wiping out plantations

The pernicious pathogen has destroyed plantations in countries such as Australia, Pakistan, and China, rendering entire areas unsuitable for banana farming.  And although actions can be taken to contain the fungus, so that banana plantations do not become infested, there is no way of preventing the disease itself.

Researchers at Wageningen University say that this Fusarium strain is infecting local banana varieties, as well as the world’s most exported banana variety, the Cavendish. As growers and consumers of bananas in Latin America know, there are indeed several varieties of edible banana. However, the variety on sale in the supermarkets of Europe, North America, and Australia is the Cavendish. Worth £5.3 billion, the Cavendish accounts for almost all of the banana export trade and 47 percent of all the world’s cultivated bananas.

If the predictions are correct, and the unstoppable disease does soon reach the region, the impact will be devastating.  In 2014, Latin American and Caribbean countries accounted for 55 percent of total banana exports. Ecuador is the world’s largest exporters of bananas, exporting some $2.6 billion worth of bananas in 2014.

Some experts claim that the disease may well be in the region. An industry scientist who wished to remain anonymous told The Independent that there was reason to believe that T4 had already made its way into Latin American plantations.

Officials from leading banana companies, however, are underplaying the threat. A representative from Del Monte Fresh Produce NA Inc. told The Packer that none of their plantations in Latin America have been impacted, and that they believed the situation was unlikely to change in the near future.

‘El Pulpo’ and the pathogen

This is not, of course, the first time that the formidable fungus has caused devastation to the region’s banana plantations.

During the 20th Century, Panama disease almost brought banana giant the United Fruit Company (UFC) – which later became Chiquita Brands International – to its knees, and it eventually forced producers to switch from the world’s most popular banana variety Gros Michel to the less appealing disease-resistant Cavendish.

By 1910, UFC – dubbed ‘el Pulpo’, the octopus, because of its reputation in influencing national governments; controlling local infrastructure; and oppressing banana labourers – had maintained a near-monopoly on banana production in Latin America.  It was at this time, however, that Panama disease – also known as Fusarium Wilt – emerged. Wiping out entire banana plantations, the fungus attacks the root of the plant, causing its leaves to yellow and wilt before killing it. The disease spread like wild fire, carried by workers from one plantation to another.

As the disease rapidly took hold and former plantations languished, United Fruit was constantly forced to seek new land. The company had gained a reputation for buying up acres of land to feed its empire, a tactical move to ensure that if and when plantations succumbed to the disease, UFC could quickly set up operations in new areas.

When the disease forced the company to abandon these areas too, it moved its operations to the Pacific coast. Some 8,000 hectares of land were abandoned in Panama and Costa Rica, and as the company attempted to elude the devastation wrought by nature, huge tracts of rain forest were converted into areas of fallow flooding in attempt to stop the disease spreading.

UFC’s response to the fungus and its efforts to control it were met with little success, although it did succeed in destroying large tracts of primary forest.

Indeed, the only way to elude the pathogen was to switch varieties. Although the disease-resistant Cavendish was in fact discovered in the 1920s, United Fruit did not at the time consider it a viable option because it bruises easily, produces small bunches, and does not ripen well.

Top banana?

The banana giant spent years attempting to control the disease and find a suitable disease-resistant variety, however, the company eventually switched over to the Cavendish in the 1960s, but only after its rival – Standard Fruit Company – had done so first.

Now, however, the supposed disease-resistant Cavendish has also succumbed to Panama disease. The Cavendish has had good run, but it appears that, like the Gros Michel, it could soon cease to be the world’s top banana.

See also:

Banana workers in Guatemala face new threat as Del Monte menaces to move the production