Thu | May 28, 2020

Deborah Henry-Myers | Going bananas over Panama disease

Published:Sunday | August 25, 2019 | 12:00 AM
Dorothy Henry Myers

The Jamaica banana and plantain industry is on high alert for the prevention of Fusarium oxysporum f.sp.cubense Tropical Race 4 (Foc TR4 or TR4) or Fusarium wilt. Known here as Panama disease Race 4 (PDR4) and is a deadly disease of banana and plantain crops but has not yet been found in Jamaica.

The disease, which has existed in Asia for many years, spread to Africa in 2013 (specifically Mozambique) and to the Middle East (specifically Oman and Jordan). It was, in July 2015, highly suspected to be in the La Guahira region of Colombia. Hence banana and plantain producing nations of Latin America and the Caribbean are accelerating the agreed action plan for the prevention of the disease in the respective territories. The greatest limitation to the full implementation of the action plan is the availability of funding to ensure that all the control points are activated.

On June 24 this year (before the investigation of TR4 disease in Colombia), Audley Shaw, Jamaica’s minister of agriculture and fisheries, addressed the FAO conference in Rome, Italy, requesting support for Jamaica towards TR4 prevention, early detection and eventual control. This request is now very urgent.

The cost of implementing the prevention, emergency action, and disease management programme over three years will be estimated at well over the $708 million to control Frosty Pod of cocoa in Jamaica. This is because bananas and plantains can be found all over the island and are cultivated by more growers.

A 2019 study by Jairzheno Bailey and a review of RADA’s ABIS database (December 2018) shows the following:

• There are 68,612 banana and plantain farmers, 15,290 are full-scale commercial farmers.

• Islandwide estimates indicated that the sector occupied approximately 20,822.53 hectares of land (11,281.69 in banana and 9,540.84 in plantain production); of this 16,310.92 hectares were involved in commercial production.

• The average farm sizes were computed to be 1.5 hectares (3.68 acres) and 1.4 hectares (3.45 acres) for banana and plantain farms respectively.

• Approximately 23 per cent of the bananas produced in Jamaica is non-commercial for consumption by family and friends and not traded. It is the cheapest starch or staple eaten in various forms by 98 per cent of the population.

The estimated 2015 annual value of banana and plantain production output at farm gate parity prices was J$6.04 billion. Banana production for 2018 was 66,381 million tonnes, or a 22 per cent increase over 2015. Further, 694 million tonnes was exported in 2018 compared to 318 million tonnes in 2015, 118 per cent increase. Therefore, the current study being carried out proved that that current farm gate parity price exceeded that of 2015.

Banana, together with plantains, is the most exported fruit in the world and the fifth most produced food crop in least-developed countries. It is an important staple food or source of income for about 400 million people. Foc TR4 is a serious threat to the production of the crop with serious repercussions on livelihoods of smallholder producers, workers and the banana value chain.

Drastic quarantine

In the region, countries such as Ecuador and Costa Rica have committed vast sums for prevention of the disease from impacting their export banana production. Widespread public awareness and drastic quarantine prevention strategies, such as disinfection mats at all airports and seaports of entry and chambers for import containers and used vehicles have been installed. A ban has been placed on importation of all banana plant materials and by-products.

Fusarium wilt (Panama disease), which is caused by the fungus, Fusarium oxysporum f.sp.cubense (Foc) is the most destructive disease to have affected Musaceae family of plants, and is considered one of the 10 most notable diseases in the history of agriculture.

The early symptoms of Fusarium wilt in the banana and plantain plants can be confused with nutritional deficiency or water stress. The leaf symptoms can also be confused with Ralstonia solanacearum (Moko disease) a bacterial wilt disease. In plants affected by Fusarium, yellowing and wilting of leaves progresses from the older to the younger leaves. In plants affected by Moko disease, wilting normally begins with the youngest leaves.

The fungus spreads through infected plant materials and infested soil particles attached to any item such as farm tools, shoes, clothes, animals and vehicles. Irrigation and water play a critical role in its spread. Chemical control is currently not possible, and once established, it remains viable in the soil for decades.

Preventing or Minimising the Disease

1. Strengthen border protection capabilities such as installation of disinfecting mats for persons and disinfecting chambers for used motor vehicles and containers.

2. Prohibit the importation of banana/plantain plants, plantlets, any part of the banana plant and Heliconia from countries that have the disease or are suspected of having the disease.

3. Request in vitro tissue culture plants to be accompanied by certificates for disease indexing.

4. Train plant health officials, scientists, extension officers, border control and quarantine officers and producers on Foc TR4 identification and management.

5. Persons who visit banana/plantain fields in countries with PDR4 must leave clothes/shoes in that country and refrain from visiting infected farms.

6. Conduct widespread awareness sessions for agronomists, extension officers, plant health officers, farmers, all technicians.

7. Conduct simulation exercises for containment when the disease is identified under different conditions.

8. Increase capabilities for surveillance and diagnostics.

9. Distribute posters, brochures and information materials on TR4 and other races.

10. Secure funds or financial resources to address phytosanitary emergencies.

- Deborah Henry-Myers is a plant pathologist at the Banana Board. Email feedback to