THE END OF THE BANANA?
Three weeks ago, at a conference in South Africa, scientists met to discuss how to contain a deadly banana disease outbreak in nearby Mozambique, Africa. At fault was a fungus that continues its march around the planet. In recent years, it has spread across Asia and Australia, devastating plants there that bear the signature yellow supermarket fruit.
The international delegation of researchers shared their own approaches to the malady, hoping to arrive at some strategy to insulate Mozambique and the rest of Africa: a continent where bananas are essential to the lives of millions. They left the Cape Town-based meeting with an air of optimism.
Only days after the meeting, however, a devastating new survey of the stricken Mozambique farm was released. Scientists at the conference assumed that the fungus was limited to a single plot. The new report suggested the entire plantation was infested, expanding 125 diseased acres to more than 3,500. All told, 7 million banana plants were doomed to wilt and rot.
“The future looks bleak,” says Altus Viljoen, the South African plant pathologist who organized the conference. “There’s no way they’ll be able to stop any further spread if they continue to farm.” Worse, he says, the disease’s rapid spread endangers banana crops beyond Mozambique’s borders.
The story of the African farm is the story of a threat to the world’s largest fruit crop. Commercially, bananas generate $8 billion annually and, according to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, more than 400 million people rely on the fruit as their primary source of calories. Though more bananas are grown in Asia, Africans depend heavily on the crop; in countries like Rwanda and Uganda, for example, average banana consumption is about 500 pounds per person annually, or 20 times that of the typical American. If the bananas vanish, people starve.
The funding came from Chiquita, the world’s largest and oldest banana producer. Expectations were high. Operations in the nation could soon account for as much as 30 percent of the company’s $2 billion supermarket banana business, according to then-CEO Fernando Aguirre. The plantation would keep world banana supplies and prices stable, and would also provide huge local benefits, adding as many as 3,000 jobs to the regional economy. In 2010, Chiquita left Mozambique, claiming that it couldn’t get high enough quality fruit from the operation, and that northbound shipments were too threatened by piracy along the African coast.
HOW CAN WE SAVE THE BANANA?
Possibilities and research
Quite simply, despite the world’s best efforts and major investments, scientists still don’t know enough about the biology and genetics of the causative fungus; and the other challenge is the need for greater genetic diversity among banana cultivars.
Thus, first and foremost, disease resistance is the best basis for a healthy banana.
Panama disease acts on different scales: Plant, field, farm, region, country and even continent.
Researchers, commercial companies and government institutions are working together on crop protection, food security and innovation. This will help to manage the dissemination of the deadly Fusarium fungus and sustain the livelihoods of the millions of people who depend on the banana.