A catastrophic dilemma is now lurking in the midst of Asia’s banana industry.
The deadly Fusarium wilt (Panama wilt) Tropical Race 4 (TR4) disease has long emerged in China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Taiwan, and the Philippines. But of late, aggressive spread has been reported specifically in the Philippines and China, two major Cavendish producers in the world.
This was an alarming revelation during the consultation-workshop on the “Socio-economic Impacts of Fusarium Wilt Disease of Cavendish Banana in the Asia-Pacific Region” that was organized by the Philippine Council for Agriculture, Aquatic and Natural Resources Research and Development (PCAARRD), Food and Fertilizer Technology Center (FFTC) and the Banana Asia Pacific Network (BAPNET)-Bioversity International.
History tells of Fusarium wilt Race 1 wiping out the Gros Michel of Latin America in the 1950s, thus, the shift to the Cavendish variety that is resistant to Race 1. A more virulent strain, the Tropical Race 4 (TR4) which attacks the Cavendish, ravaged Taiwan’s Cavendish in the 1980s (but was confirmed to be TR4 only in the 1990s), and in the 1990s, Indonesia and Malaysia.
The TR4 strain had spread to Guangdong province, China in early 2000. Shortly after, the disease epidemic was observed in Davao City, the main Cavendish growing region in the Philippines. Dr. Molina, with other scientists, officially confirmed the destructive strain to be TR4 in 2008.
Since then, Bioversity has been raising alarm to the Cavendish stakeholders in Davao. Research in mitigating the disease epidemic has been initiated by Bioversity in partnership with government agencies such as PCAARRD, Department of Agriculture-Bureau of Agricultural Research (DA-BAR), Bureau of Plant Industry – Davao, University of the Philippines Los Baños (UPLB) and some banana growers.
In the workshop, Mr. Remigio Garcia, president of the Mindanao Banana Farmers and Exporters Association (MBFEA), reported that about 39% (5,900 hectares) of their members’ aggregate Cavendish plantation area had been infected. Three thousand (3,000) hectares of which had been abandoned.
This runs contrary to earlier media reports that the TR4 devastation goes by mere hundreds of hectares. This does not even account the potential disease infestation in big commercial plantations.
“I did not realize that the Fusarium wilt problem has already spread like a bushfire,” sadly remarked Dr. Molina, Regional Coordinator of Bioversity International-Asia, Pacific and Oceanic
The Pilipino Banana Growers and Exporters Association (PBGEA), which comprises big industry players, painted a bleak scenario saying that, “If left without rigid interventions, the rapid spread of the disease can eliminate the entire export banana industry in five (5) years’ time.”
In the event of an industry breakdown, the economic ramifications would surely create far-reaching social impacts to millions of Filipinos that depend on the industry. According to PBGEA, assuming a ratio of four (4) farmers working on a hectare of land, this would result in around 330,000 workers losing their jobs with annual wages totaling PhP42.3B. In a family of 5, 66,000 families would potentially lose their livelihood due to this disease epidemic.
MBFEA’s report stated that 6,000 workers had been displaced from the abandoned 3,000 hectares due to TR4.
These figures do not factor in other related industries involved in banana processing, packaging, marketing, financing, service providing and the like.
The million-dollar question now is: Are there ways to beat this formidable TR4 foe?
“At this point, it can no longer be a business-as-usual thing for the lucrative Cavendish banana industry. But always, there is hope,” said Dr. Molina.
In a study being conducted by Bioversity with the Lapanday Foods Corporation (a private banana exporter based in Davao City), DA-BAR and PCAARRD, some Cavendish varieties have shown resistance to TR4. Particular to the GCTCVs (Giant Cavendish Tissue Culture Variants) introduced by Bioversity from Taiwan, these varieties exhibited high disease resistance and acceptability in the international market due to its sweeter taste than the regular variety. This presents a viable option for small-scale independent Cavendish growers who are most affected by the disease epidemic due to limited technical capability and infrastructure compared with the big industry players.
Dr. Molina also cautioned that, “Appropriate and effective transboundary quarantine and surveillance laws should be in place and strictly implanted among countries within our own region and within countries. Australia has been very effective in keeping TR4 at bay and we could learn from them.”
“Now that the industry is up to a huge challenge, unified and concerted efforts have to come from all concerned sectors not only in the region but down the countries as well,” he firmly stated.
Socio-economic and banana production experts in the region participated in the training-workshop, which took place on 12-15 November 2013 and was strategically held in Davao City, Philippines, the major banana growing area of export banana in the country.
The importance of the workshop was highlighted by no other than the Director of FFTC, Dr. Yu-Tsai Huang, the Executive Director of PCAARRD, Dr. Patricio S. Faylon and Dr. Agustin Molina, Senior Scientist and Regional Coordinator of BAPNET-Bioversity. The consultation-workshop was designed to gather information on the social impacts of the Fusarium wilt epidemic in the Asia-Pacific region. Additionally, country strategies, institutional arrangements and collaborative strategies to address the wilt problem were lengthily discussed.
by Bernadette P. Joven, Bioversity International