Banana industry vigilant against new threat
The Banana Board, in collaboration with the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, has started a sensitisation programme about Panama Tropical Race 4 (PD TR4), a disease which is posing a global threat to bananas and plantains. The programme, which began in St James targeting the technical officers in the Rural Agricultural Development Authority (RADA) and plant quarantine officers in the agriculture ministry, will be extended to other parishes.
The current threat of PD TR4 has been making headlines across the world, especially to the most common Cavendish bananas and 'Horse' plantains which accounts for 95 per cent of the global export market and is most common and cultivated in Jamaica.
PD TR4, totally different from the Panama Disease (PD races 1 and 2) which is already here, affects the Apple and Gros Michel varieties but poses no real threat to the local commercial industry. The TR4 strain has devastated banana cultivation in Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Australia, but it is not yet detected in the Western Hemisphere and, therefore, not in Jamaica. However, there is a real concern that it could spread to banana-producing countries in the Caribbean and Central and South America.
Janet Conie, general manager of the Banana Board, which has been monitoring the global situation, is confident that the local banana industry can be protected from the threat of infection with appropriate public education, vigilance at Jamaica's ports of entry, implementation of robust quarantine regulations and surveillance of the banana and plantain fields.
"The Panama Tropical Race 4 disease is caused by the fungus Fusarium oxysporum f.sp. cubense that infects the soil and enters the plants mostly through the roots. However, the disease can enter the plant through any wound created with infected tools. The fungus grows, multiplies and blocks the vascular tissue, preventing movement of water and food. The plant shows symptoms of progressive yellowing, buckling or wilting of the leaves and ultimately dies," she said.
The scientist shared with The Gleaner that for PD TR4 to come to our island, "Somebody would have to carry it here. They could bring it in a piece of banana, plantain or Heliconia plant material. They could bring it in infected soil, or they could bring it on contaminated tools. However, our quarantine laws mitigate anyone bringing soil in from anywhere. No one is supposed to bring soil on any plants, any banana or plantain plant parts, fruit or roots without the requisite permits and strict conditions stipulated by the Banana Board."
Conie's confidence is grounded in Jamaica's strict banana plant import protocol which does not allow for the importation of fresh plant material, except in tissue culture from meristems or somatic embryogenesis, which is not likely to facilitate transmission of fungal diseases. Even so, samples of permitted imports must be rigorously screened for other devastating viral diseases of economic importance.
"So we do have rules and regulations, it is just that they must work with the quarantine efforts. We in the Jamaican Banana Industry and the banana world have protocols that govern how you move seedlings, how you move bananas, how you move fresh material between countries. If they are followed then we shouldn't get PD TR4; but there are illicit people who may bring in contraband; and that is why the customs form asks international travellers pertinent quarantine questions: Have you been on a farm? Do you have any fresh fruit or plant material? That is why they take away everything that is fresh and burn it. It is therefore necessary to sensitise the farming community and the public," the Banana Board head explained.
Conie noted that while there is no immediate threat to Jamaica's banana crop, the Banana Board and agriculture ministry have seen the need to implement an action plan which includes, first, training technical persons in the field about PD TR4 in terms of what to look out for in surveys, especially since the disease is not easy to eradicate. The industry is also increasing its capacity for confirming the disease with laboratory diagnostics. It is also extremely necessary and ongoing that other varieties (although not now the varieties of choice in the international trade) that are more tolerant to PD TR4 are strategically available.
Stories circulating on the Internet have painted a picture of doom in regard to the future of the global banana market, information she believes needs to be heeded, but in perspective. This is especially important since, as one story put it, "The problem has gotten so bad, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, that countries that grow bananas have been warned to step up monitoring, reporting and prevention in order to tackle what it calls 'one of the world's most destructive banana diseases, and threatens the income of millions of people.'"