The emergence of a deadly new fungus, resistant to any existing treatment, has the potential to wipe out the world’s banana plantations.
Known as Panama disease, the pathogen was first identified in the 1990s in Taiwan, and from there it spread to Southeast Asia, China, Malaysia, and parts of Australia, where it has caused extensive damage. Now there is evidence that it is on the move again, and has spread to Jordan and parts of Africa, according a website devoted to Panama Disease.
“I’m incredibly concerned. I will not be surprised if it pops up in Latin America in the near future,” said Gerta Kema, a researcher at Wageningen University and research Centre in the Netherlands, in an article in Nature. Kema is a co-author of an article on the fungus in the journal Plant Disease.
This latest outbreak has its origins in a similar outbreak in the 1950s when an earlier strain of the Fusarium fungus devastated the banana plantations in Central and South America. At that time, most bananas that were grown were a variety named Gros Michel. As these were wiped out, growers found another variety, called Cavendish, that resisted the fungus, and so that has become the dominant variety.
However, the Cavendish is not resistant to this newest Fusarium strain. If bananas were to disappear, not only would a favorite fruit disappear, but it would threaten the lives of millions of people, not only as a livelihood, but as a major food source.
Over 100 billion bananas are consumed around the world each year. It is the world’s most important food crop behind wheat, rice and corn. Only 15% of the annual crop is exported, mostly to the U.S. and Europe, while the other 85% is locally consumed. In the U.S., Americans eat more bananas than apples and oranges combined.
It has now become a race against time.
“A concerted international approach is now needed to prevent the spread of Panama disease and, in the worst-case scenario, contain it,” said Kema in an article in the Science Daily News.
There does not appear to be any one solution, but several things need to be done to prevent further crop loss.
Part of the problem is that much is still unknown about this fungus, and so more research is needed. Also, because the large plantations are growing a single variety, the Canvendish, a disease can spread more rapidly through such a monoculture. Growers need to be encouraged to plant different varieties of bananas to increase diversity.