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article imageIt is happening again — World's bananas at risk of extinction

By Karen Graham     Dec 1, 2015 in Food
History does repeat itself, and one of the world's favorite fruits is at risk of disappearing, maybe for good. A virulent fungal disease has struck again, jumping continents as it devastates banana crops in its relentless move toward Latin America.
As reported in Digital Journal in June 2015, in the 1950s, the banana industry hung on by the skin of its teeth after the top-selling Gros Michel banana met its demise due to one of the Fusarium oxysporum f.sp. cubense (FOC) fungi.
When the fungal disease eventually wiped out the Gros Michel banana crops, growers turned to the Cavendish banana. It proved to be resistant to the early stages of FOC, or Panama Disease, as it is known around the world. It's important to remember that banana plants are clones, monocultures, and cannot reproduce.
A clone of an organism cannot reproduce, and as in the case of banana plants, they can’t evolve, either, leaving them defenseless against disease, Quartz points out.
New crop of banana plants growing in Australia.
New crop of banana plants growing in Australia.
FOC Tropical race 4 is spreading rapidly
Scientists at Wageningen University have identified a clone of the Fusarium oxysporum f.sp. cubense (FOC), informally called Tropical Race 4, affecting Cavendish bananas in Jordan, Mozambique, China, Indonesia, Australia and many other countries. They point out strains of the fungal samples taken around the world are genetically identical.
Gert Kema, a banana expert at Wageningen UR, says: "This research demonstrates that the quarantine measures and information provided around the globe apparently have not had the desired effect." Perhaps more important is that methods of quarantine need to be employed because of the susceptibility of the Cavendish to TR4.
Kema explains, "That's why we have to intensify awareness campaigns to reach small and large-scale growers in order to help them with developing and implementing quarantine measures preventing the fungus from continued spreading."
Notice the wilting on these banana plants. They are infected with TR4.
Notice the wilting on these banana plants. They are infected with TR4.
While TR4 has not been identified as being found in Latin America, it is possible that the fungus is already there. Randy Ploetz, the professor of plant pathology at the University of Florida who discovered Tropical Race 4 was quoted by Quartz as saying, when the disease was discovered in Jordan, Oman and Mozambique, that jump in continents pointed to "workers brought over to establish the plantations—some of them were from Latin America.”
Ploetz added, “And this is an insidious disease in that it can move… by soil-contaminated machinery, tools—that kind of thing.” Chiquita, the $548-million fruit giant, the world's largest banana market, doesn't seem to take the TR4 disease very seriously.
Ed Lloyd, a spokesman for Chiquita, told the Charlotte Business Journal in late December 2013, “It’s certainly not an immediate threat to banana production in Latin America," adding, the company was using a “risk-mitigation program” in approaching the possible risk.
When the banana plant is infected with TR4  the vascular system gets clogged  preventing nutrients f...
When the banana plant is infected with TR4, the vascular system gets clogged, preventing nutrients from going up to the leaves and fruits, killing the plant.
The ravages to the banana crop will be disastrous if the tropical Race 4 fungus spreads to Latin America. When the Gros Michel banana went belly-up, the economic loss was a staggering $2.3 billion U.S. dollars (around $18.2 billion in today’s terms). Tropical Race 4, in comparison, has already damaged $400 million in banana crops in the Philippines alone.
But that is not the worst part of this particular disease. Tropical Race 4 is a real killing machine, and it's not only Cavendish bananas that are at risk. A number of other banana species immune to Race 1 have no defense against TR4, and Ploetz says TR4 is capable of killing almost 85 percent of the 160 million tons of bananas and plantains produced each year.
Think of this, too — over 400 million people rely on bananas for 15 to 27 percent of their total daily calories. Bananas have become the fourth most important food product in the world, after rice, wheat, and milk. Where bananas were once a snack food, they have now become an important food source for 9/10ths of the world's poor. When the Cavendish banana disappears, what will happen then?
This study, "Worse Comes to Worst: Bananas and Panama Disease—When Plant and Pathogen Clones Meet," was published in the journal PLOS on November, 19, 2015.
More about Bananas, Cavendish bananas, fusarium oxysporum fsp, Panama disease, tropical race 4
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