* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
14 April 2014, Rome – The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) is warning countries to step up monitoring, reporting and prevention of one of the world's most destructive banana diseases, Fusarium wilt, which recently spread from Asia to Africa and the Middle East, and which has the potential to affect countries in Latin America. The TR4 race of the disease, which is also known as Panama disease, is posing a serious threat to production and export of the popular fruit, with serious repercussions for the banana value chain and livelihoods, FAO said in an information brief. Banana is the eighth most important food crop in the world and the fourth most important food crop among the world's least-developed countries, according to FAOSTAT, the UN agency's data-gathering and analysis service. "Any disease or constraint that affects bananas is striking at an important source of food, livelihoods, employment and government revenues in many tropical countries," said Gianluca Gondolini, Secretary of the World Banana Forum. The Forum, whose Secretariat is based at FAO headquarters, promotes sustainable banana production and trade. "The spread of Fusarium wilt banana disease could have a significant impact on growers, traders and families who depend on the banana industry," Fazil Dusunceli, a plant pathologist at FAO, said. "Countries need to act now if we are to avoid the worst-case scenario, which is massive destruction of much of the world's banana crop," said Dusunceli. Recommended action At the country level, FAO specifically advises:Awareness raising at all levels and adoption of appropriate risk assessment, surveillance and early warning systems; Implementation of phytosanitary measures to prevent the spread of the disease through agricultural practices, irrigation and drainage systems, transportation, vehicles, containers, tools or visitors; Preventive measures, including quarantines, the use of disease-free planting materials, prevention of movement of infected soil and planting materials into and out of farms, and disinfection of vehicles; Capacity building in National Plant Protection Organizations (NPPO) in planning, extension and research, including the use of rapid and accurate diagnostic tools; Training of technical officers, producers and farm workers in disease identification, prevention and management under field conditions, and appropriate instructions to visitors.
While other races of the disease have existed for many years, TR4 has caused significant losses in banana plantations in Southeast Asia over the last two decades, and has recently been reported in Mozambique and Jordan. TR4 infects the Cavendish banana varieties, which dominate global trade, as well as other susceptible varieties used for local consumption and markets. Despite damage to the banana plant and to production, the fruit itself remains edible. Soil-borne disease Fusarium wilt is caused by the fungus Fusarium oxysporum f.sp. cubense (Foc). The disease is soil-borne and the fungus can remain viable for decades. Once the disease is present in a field, it cannot be fully controlled by currently available practices and fungicides. The best way to fight the disease is to prevent its spread, which includes avoiding movement of diseased plant materials and infected soil particles. "We need to raise awareness of this threat, coordinate efforts among countries and institutions for effective implementation of appropriate quarantine measures, and also work with banana producers, traders, plantation employees and smallholder farmers to help to minimize the spread of the disease," Dusunceli said. He also highlighted the importance of research in better understanding the disease and developing alternative varieties that are disease resistant. FAO's information note stresses the importance of using disease-free seedlings and avoiding movement of infected soil and planting materials into, and out of, farms, through transportation, visitors or other means. "A concerted effort is required from stakeholders including the industry, research institutions, governments and international organizations to prevent spread of the disease," the note reads. Raising awareness FAO and its partners, including the World Banana Forum (WBF), the scientific community and the banana industry are among those making efforts to increase awareness of the inherent threat of TR4.The issue will be on the agenda of a series of upcoming meetings in Kenya, South Africa, and Trinidad and Tobago, with the aim of addressing a range of issues related to TR4, including developing action plans for its prevention, monitoring and containment. The banana crop is vulnerable to a number of diseases in various parts of the world, including the Black Sigatoka disease, Xanthomonas Wilt (BXW), Bunchy Top Disease (BBTD) and Fusarium Wilt, but Fusarium's soil-borne nature makes it especially challenging.