Why bananas may be endangered in Latin America
The Colombian Agricultural Institute (ICA) confirmed the arrival of Panama TR4 disease, a soil-dwelling fungus that has devastated plantations in Southeast Asia for the past 30 years.
It is a particular threat to the Cavendish variety, which accounts for half of world production and 95% of world exports. Latin American plantations alone account for two-thirds of the world banana trade.
"The first arrival of TR4 in Latin America is a very serious matter. It's a very difficult disease to control and manage," said Professor Gert Kema, plant expert and head of tropical phytopathology at the University of Wageningen in the Netherlands, who was part of the team that analyzed banana plants in Colombia.
The fungus doesn't affect humans, but infected plants stop producing fruit. It spreads through soil movements, usually caused by workers and machinery, and has destroyed plantations in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. The first sign of the disease in Colombia occurred in June in the province of La Guajira, in the extreme northeast of the country.
Colombia has increased sanitary controls at all ports, airports and border posts. The ICA clarified that they had already eradicated plants in an area covering almost 170 hectares of quarantined plantations, adding: "The challenge now is to work on containment in La Guajira. In fact, ICA has declared a "national emergency," and extended preventive measures throughout Colombia.
Banana exports are an important source of income for many Latin American countries. Colombia is the fourth-largest exporter in the region - in fact, it is the third-largest agricultural export in the country - behind Ecuador (which supplies more than a quarter of total exports), Costa Rica and Guatemala.
The Cavendish variety is based on a single genetic clone, meaning it is vulnerable to epidemics. Before Cavendish became the dominant variety, Gros Michel was the most consumed banana. However, it was extinguished in the 1950s by the first strain of Panama disease.
While improved versions of fruits and vegetables are constantly being introduced to the market, the banana industry until recently had relied on the Cavendish variety with virtually no research on new varieties, as the Financial Times was able to confirm with experts on these plants.
If Cavendish banana plantations in Latin America were destroyed, international fruit suppliers would not be able to turn to other producers to replace it. "We are faced with the fact that there is nothing [that can] replace [the Cavendish yet]," warned Professor Kema.
Currently, there is no effective treatment for Panama disease once it has infected the plant. Researchers like Professor Kema are trying to speed up the breeding program to create a resistant variety with the taste and quality that consumers will accept. This will take at least 5 to 6 years, he told the Financial Times.
Others are working on genetically modified versions of bananas and plantains, while an English agricultural technology start-up, Tropic Biosciences, intends to use new genetic editing techniques to develop a banana resistant to Panama disease.