African Bananas And The Panama Wilt

The future of African bananas is of great concern compared to the rumors circulating that imported bananas from Somalia can cause death because of the presence of worms. What is worrying is the new strain of Panama disease or tropical race 4 (TR4) that’s threatening the existence of the world’s most beloved fruit. Scientists are racing to fight the banana wilt and prevent the obliteration of bananas that are sources of livelihood and nutrition in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

Photo credit: vije-vijendranath-Unsplash

A Lethal Disease

Bananas are favored by consumers around the world. They taste good, are easy to eat, and versatile. In addition, bananas contain valuable vitamins, fiber, and natural sugars. There are many varieties to choose from and bananas can be eaten when ripe or cooked as part of different dishes.  Unfortunately, the plant is also susceptible to infections. Recently, plant diseases have caused problems to banana production in Africa. Bugs such as banana Xanthomonas and banana bunchy top disease occurred on the continent. 

The most recent threat is the Fusarium oxyspurum f. sp. Cubense (Foc) or TR4 where it was first discovered on a farm in Mozambique. Previously, the disease was confined to Asia, but has spread to Africa and Latin America. Although it is not new to the continent, having been first reported in West Africa in 1924 and in 1951 when it invaded Tanzania, the strain is now widely spread in banana-producing countries in the continent.

Fighting Off the Disease

According to Guy Blomme from the Alliance of Biodiversity International and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), bananas are no stranger to plagues. The Panama wilt is a soil-borne fungus that invades the plant and causes it to droop and die. The bad news is, there is no efficient way to get ride of the fungus once the soil is contaminated. Miguel Dita of the Alliance says that during the first disease outbreak, the industry reacted by replacing Gros Michel with Cavendish cultivars. Unluckily, Cavendish cultivars and many other varieties of banana are susceptible to the Fusarium wilt.

To contain the outbreak in Mozambique and to prevent it from spreading in neighboring countries, a consortium of African and international institutions and researchers developed a series of interventions. Part of the response included targeted awareness campaigns and training. The use of resistant varieties and integrated pest management were also employed. On a global scale, the race is on to discover a solution. For example, Australian scientists came up with a genetically modified (GM)  banana that is resistant to the disease. But GM products are heavily regulated in Europe, it’s still a long way before these types of fruits will hit the supermarkets.

Garcia-Bastidas who completed his doctoral degree on the TR4 at the Wageningen University wants to see more varieties of cultivars planted to improve their resiliency to outbreaks. He points out that there are already many countries that plant and consume different varieties of bananas. On the downside, these cultivars are difficult to grow and export on the same scale as the Cavendish. Hence, the challenge is to develop a cultivar that is resistant to TR4 and commercially-viable.

The Panama wilt is a problem that affects millions of livelihoods worldwide including Africa. Solutions to fight the effect of the outbreak include containing the plague and replacing existing plants with disease-fighting cultivars.

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