The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has launched an emergency project to curb major plant losses threatened by a fungal disease as part of a renewed effort to help protect banana crops in Latin America and the Caribbean.
The FAO said that under its technical cooperation programme, the project will work to fight the spread of Fusarium wilt, a fungal plant disease that can wipe out plantations of banana crops, “upon which millions of people depend for their livelihoods”.
FAO assistant chief and regional representative for Latin America and the Caribbean, Julio Berdegué, said that “the role of bananas in providing food and household income in this region cannot be understated”.
According to FAO, bananas are “the most traded fresh fruit in the world, and the banana sector serves as an essential source of employment and income for thousands of rural households in developing countries,” including those in the Caribbean.
The FAO said the TR4 (Tropical Race, 4) strain of the fungus was first detected in July in Colombia, where 175 hectares of banana farms were put under quarantine by the Instituto Colombiano Agropecuario (ICA), an entity looking after the country’s agriculture and fishing sectors.
FAO warned that the possibility of the disease spreading “would have devastating impacts for farmers and their families across the region”.
“Bananas are of particular significance in some of the least developed and low-income countries, where beyond contributing to household food security, they generate income as a cash crop. For some small farmers, banana crops account for 75 per cent of their total monthly income. The fungus’s ability to wipe out entire plantations could threaten critical food sources, household incomes and export revenues,” it added.
FAO said TR4 pathogens deplete plants by attacking the roots and stems, including those of the Cavendish banana variety, one of the globally most popular. Though harmless to humans, the fungus can easily spread through planting materials, and movement of infested soil particles on shoes, vehicles and in water.
FAO said though research is ongoing, there is no fully effective treatment of soil or plants to control or cure Fusarium disease.
In addition, fungal spores are able to lie dormant in soil for more than 30 years, and have proved resistant to fungicides, according to FAO’s World Banana Forum, which addresses the fruit’s sustainability challenges.
For these reasons, TR4 is considered “the world’s greatest threat to banana production,” FAO said, adding that to help eradicate the disease, it has been providing technical assistance by way of diagnostics and identifying risk pathways.
The agency recommends fortifying soil health and strengthening genetic resources to build resilience to the disease in the future.