Already in 1923, the world was holding its breath for the future of the banana. The major musical hit “Yes, we have no bananas” was number one for 5 weeks, while the USA suffered from banana shortages shortage due to the first infestations of the Panama disease.
In the 1950’s, Latin American banana plantations producing the favorite banana ‘Gros Michel’ were wiped out by Panama disease, caused by the soil-borne fungus Fusarium oxysporum f. sp. cubense. The disease cannot be cured and controlling it is extremely complicated. The epidemic caused huge economic damage and had devastating consequences for the livelihoods of millions of banana workers and producers.
Fortunately, the Panama disease problem was solved by deploying a new and resistant banana variety: Cavendish. This gradually replaced Gros Michel and currently dominates the global export trade and many domestic markets. Cavendish banana remained resistant for decades, but in 1992 a more aggressive strain of the Fusarium fungus was discovered. This strain, also known as Tropical Race 4 (TR4) has spread throughout Southeast Asia, where it ravaged thousands of hectares over the past years.
Now, the fungus made a transcontinental leap into the Middle East and Africa, infecting Cavendish bananas in Jordan and Mozambique. This bangs on doors of international quarantine offices and seems to be the prelude to a new era of global Panama disease threats. Gert Kema, scientist at Wageningen UR: “I am incredibly concerned that it will soon pop-up in Latin America.”
The World Banana Forum, a multi-stakeholder platform of the banana industry whose Secretariat is hosted by the FAO, recently launched a TR4 Task Force to save the banana as the livelihoods and food security of millions of producers and small-holders are threatened. Luud Clercx, from the TASTE Foundation (Technical Assistance for Sustainable Trade & Environment), coordinates the group and agrees that “Global efforts are urgently needed on training and capacity building to safeguard banana production.” Wageningen UR coordinates several multidisciplinary public-private partnerships to combat Panama disease. But according to Kema, more action is needed: “Given the TR4 outbreaks, nothing is enough! More action is urgently required.”