Prevention and training for farmers: the best-known weapons to combat the fungus affecting bananas
Brasilia, 1 March (IICA) - The banana crop, which is key to global food security, is suffering from a true pandemic for which there is no known cure, and which can therefore only be overcome with strict prevention measures. Agricultural engineer Ronald Guendel, Global Head of Food Chain Relations at Bayer Crop Science, made this assertion during an interview with the program Agro America, broadcast by Brazilian TV channel Agro Mais.
According to Guendel, the Tropical Race 4 (TR4) strain of the Fusarium fungus, considered the greatest threat to the survival of the banana crop in the past seven decades, will directly or indirectly affect the well-being of many people around the world.
“Bananas”, he explained, “are particularly important to developing countries, where approximately 90% of the global production is consumed. It is also a crucial crop for small-scale producers, who have three, ten or twenty banana plants, for sale or their own consumption”.
The disease originated in Southeast Asia and then began to spread westward, reaching India, Pakistan, Africa and, more recently, Latin America, where the disease was detected in plantations in the northern region of Colombia last year. Upon discovering the disease, Colombian agricultural authorities declared a national emergency and ordered strict prevention measures to curb the spread of the disease to other regions of the country.
“The fungus is latent in the soil and enters the vascular system of banana plants, which wither and die. At present, there is no known cure; as a result, the only solution is prevention and training for farmers, so that they can immediately identify the symptoms of the disease and alert experts in their countries”, explained Guendel.
“Unfortunately”, he added, “this fungus does not respect borders. It began in Asia and, when it reached Africa, it destroyed almost all of Mozambique’s banana production. At present, a collaborative effort is underway between official institutions and the private sector to try to prevent it from spreading to countries like Brazil, Ecuador and Costa Rica, which depend heavily on bananas”.
To this end, the Global Alliance for Cooperation to Fight against Fusarium TR4 was recently created with the participation of representatives from the private and academic sectors, civil society organizations, government agencies and international organizations.
The Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA) acts as Secretariat for the Alliance, whose mission is to develop knowledge, technologies and mechanisms that will help find a definitive scientific solution to eradicate the fungus.
Bayer is one of the members of this coalition, together with the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), the National Banana Corporation (CORBANA) of Costa Rica, Chiquita Brands International, Red Solidaridad, Wageningen University (Netherlands) and IICA, among others.
“Our experience with Covid-19 has demonstrated that no organization can find the solution to a problem of this type on its own, and that the challenge must be overcome in a collaborative manner. That is why we created this Alliance, under IICA’s leadership”, remarked Guendel.
The Bayer expert revealed that one of the Alliance’s objectives is to “attract the attention of donors who are willing to invest in research, with a view to identifying long-term solutions”.
“We want to find more organizations that can take part in this effort, because we know that we are facing a food security problem and must work together. Any discovery made will not be patented; instead, it will be considered a public good. In no way will this become a business”, he stated.
The Alliance has three permanent working groups: the Training and Prevention group, which focuses on early detection of the disease, hygiene measures and eradication of infected plants to limit contagion; the Genetics and Cultivation group, which seeks to develop new varieties resistant to TR4; and the Chemical and Biological Control Methods group, which works on the creation of innovative crop protection products.
During the interview, Guendel stated that humanity had faced a similar problem during the first half of the 20th century, when another fusarium strain, Race 1, wiped out the Gros Michel banana species—previously the most widespread banana variety. This led to the global expansion of the Cavendish variety, which was naturally resistant to the disease. At present, this variety accounts for half of the world’s banana production and 95% of banana exports. In Latin America and the Caribbean, Cavendish is the only variety sold. This is one of the reasons for which banana production is so fragile.
“At present, there is no genetic diversity in banana farming. We have practically only one variety; therefore, it is only logical that, when a disease like this emerges, the impact is tremendous, affecting all of production”, Guendel explained.
The Bayer specialist added, “That is why we believe that the only viable, immediate solution is prevention and training of producers. In the medium term, our efforts should focus on biological and chemical protection methods, and, in the long term, on identifying a solution through genetic editing. We will only arrive at a definitive solution to the problem if we are able to obtain a plant that is resistant to the disease”.
“Obviously”, he acknowledged, “we don’t have that yet. We hope that in about ten years we’ll have a genetically edited banana variety that is resistant to TR4. Various entities around the world are conducting research in this area, so we hope to achieve more results in the coming years so that we have more tools to overcome this fungus”.
Guendel also reflected on the social and economic impact of the “pandemic” that is affecting bananas, which are grown in 135 countries and are the fourth most produced food crop in the world after wheat, rice and corn.
“There are 400 million people who, in one way or another, depend on bananas. One of its characteristics is that it is relatively easy to produce. If small-scale farmers are unable to continue growing bananas, they will have to resort to other crops, which is often difficult. This poses a very big risk in terms of food security”, he stated.
“That is why we must intensify prevention measures as we continue to pursue the long-term solution of developing a variety that is resistant to the disease”, he concluded.
The Agro América program is the product of a partnership between IICA and AgroMais, a Brazilian TV station in the Grupo Bandeirantes communication group. It airs every Thursday, with a rebroadcast on Saturday and on Sunday.
Outside of Brazil, where it airs on cable channels Claro (189 and 689), Vivo (587), Sky (569) and OI (176), it can be seen on the IICA and AgroMais YouTube channels.
Institutional Communication Division