How bananas avoided a disease apocalypse

By Neroli Rooke, ABC Rural (Posted June 3, 2013)

In 2003 scientists predicted that bananas would be extinct within a decade, carried off by fungal diseases.

And with the plants would go the worldwide commercial banana industry.

But ten years on, hundreds of growers, wholesalers and retailers gathered on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast recently for the Australian Banana Congress proving that the prediction did not come true.

Philippines-based Dr Gus Molina is the Asia-Pacific regional co-ordinator for the research and development organisation Bioversity International.

“At that time, pests and diseases were traditionally causing a lot of devastation, not only in Australia, but worldwide particularly sigatoka and fusarium wilt,” he said.

“That was an effort to increase awareness for the industry all through the world to increase research and development to address this threat.”

He says the industry survived because it heeded the wake-up call ,but it also needs to know the threat is not over.

“The challenges still remain.”

Naomi King is a scientist with Queensland’s Department of Agriculture, based at the South Johnstone research centre in the state’s north.

“Probably Tropical Race 4 is the biggest threat to our production in north Queensland and other areas of Australia that don’t currently have it.

“At the moment, it’s confined to the Northern Territory and that’s the way we’d like to keep it.

A young banana plant affected by bunchy top


“Growers need to be aware of biosecurity on their own farms and in their regions, so they don’t allow soil onto their farms, make sure all visitors, machinery and vehicles are clean and only use clean tissue-cultured material.”

Panama Tropical Race 4 is a form of fusarium wilt and it devastated crops in South America in the 1950s and 60s.

Ms King is a recent winner of the Mort Johnston scholarship, named after a Tully grower, and devoted it to learning more about the disease which lives in the soil.

“I used the scholarship to travel to Taiwan and China. Both of these countries have both tropical and sub-tropical Race 4 and I wanted to see what these countries were doing in terms of varieties and their management systems to try to manage the disease.”

She wants to bring some of the varieties which show resistance into Australia to test, and have them ready should it be found on the east coast.

Australia also has a history of seeing widespread banana losses.

A century ago bunchy top arrived into Australia with infected planting material.

It spread to destroy 16,000 hectares of plantations in northern NSW and southern Queensland and many of those areas were never replanted. David Peasley is the manager of the national Banana Bunchy Top Eradication project which checks and destroys suspect plants.

He’s most concerned about backyard banana plants through the Gold Coast, Brisbane and the Sunshine Coast harbouring the disease.

“I feel confident we can eradicate it in commercial plantations, but educating 800,000 people about the risk of bunchy top is a big problem.

“We must keep it out of north Queensland and we’ve had a study that showed we could spend up to $17-$27 million a year to keep it out of north Queensland and that’s money well spent.

“It if gets in up there, end of story.”