Fungus is affecting banana production// Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia

Fungus is affecting banana production// Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia

By James O. Diaz, Staff Writer

A new strain of a fungal disease has contaminated banana plantations and will possibly lead to the collapse of a multi-billion dollar industry. The ‘Panama Disease’, or formally known as the Fusarium Oxysporum has already infected plantations in South Asia, Africa, Middle East, and Australia rendering them useless. The fungus is expected to spread to Latin America, where majority of banana export production comes from, devastating the countries’ economy and leaving many poor plantation workers impoverished.

The fungus Fusarium Oxysporum is able to destroy plantations through its production of spores. The fungus lives in the soil and spreads to the roots where it infects and consumes the plant. The plant, unable to be nourished, dies. The production of spores is what make this fungus so malignant. Spores that are able to survive in soil for decades making acres of land unusable for any further production. To make matters worse, the fungus is able to spread easily. They can spread from the dirt clinging to shovels, truck tires, and even shipping containers to forms of natural disaster such as typhoons and storms that can carry the fungus to another plantation.

It is not the first time the fungus has devastated the banana Industry. Beginning in the early 1900s to the 1950s, the first strain of the fungus, Tropical Race 1 (TR1) led to the extinction of a species of banana, the Gros Michel. This banana at the time was the world’s only export banana species. The Gros Michel’s tough skin made it ideal for transport.
The strain of the fungus (TR1) had destroyed the plantations of Latin America and the Caribbean causing at least $2.3 billion in damage (around $18.2 billion with today’s inflation). Hundreds of the poor farmers were unable to recuperate from the damages to their banana plantations.

Banana farmers, wanting to keep up with demands and its seedless style, have grown them in monoculture. The monoculture bananas in essence are a clone of one another, and much like the potatoes of the Irish Potatoe famine, they contain no genetic diversity. The genetic diversity is what allows bananas to fight against diseases such as fungus.

Deeply crippled by the fungus, the big banana companies consulted scientists for solutions. Unable to find a way to fight the fungus, companies had to switch to a different species of bananas that had not been affected by the TR1, known as the Cavendish Banana. Plantations needed to be accommodated for the new species of bananas, costing millions, but saving the crumbling Banana Industry.

“Bananas are critical for food security and income generation for more than 100 million people. Most bananas are grown as a staple crop by farmers in poor countries. [The new strain] is able to kill more than four-fifths of these bananas that many of these poor farmers rely on for food,” said George Mahuku, a senior plant pathologist for the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture.

More than 100 billion bananas are consumed annually, making bananas the fourth most consumed crop. The multibillion dollar industry has a huge effect in Latin America. In just Costa Rica, 8 percent of the country’s job market depends on banana production. The industry has created jobs, transportation and has had much political influence in many Latin American countries. The once American owned companies United Fruit Company, Standard Fruit are now the Chiquita and Dole.

According to data from the United Nations Food & Agriculture Organization, the biggest banana producers have the hungriest populations. Approximately 85 percent of the world’s banana production is used for local consumption. Which means hundreds of millions worldwide rely on bananas for an important source of nourishment. And above all else, a significant amount of people depend on the industry for work.

Bananas are a necessary thing for many underdeveloped communities, they provide a necessary caloric intake for many. The iron-containing, potassium rich fruit, provides vitamin B6 at 100 calories every four ounces. The average person in Uganda, Gabon, Ghana, Rwank relies on bananas and plantains for more than 300 calories each day. Twenty percent of the population (74 million) in those four countries are undernourished.

The fungus isn’t the only issue in the industry. A substantial amount of banana workers are already impoverished due to the fruit being sold so cheap. The reason bananas are so cheap is because of the supermarkets’ subsequent buyer power. They impose low prices and suppliers whom are unable to meet to their demands are threatened with delisting (the company would stop buying from the supplier). This competitive market results in workers having low wages, poor working conditions, labor rights abuses, and weak environmental protections.

Despite being sprayed or conditioned with many different agrochemicals, farmers have been unsuccessful at fighting the fungus. Many of theses agrochemical are toxic and pose a significant risk to workers and the environment. Dole Fruit company was using the chemical DBCP that was actively known for making men infertile, affecting a huge worker population. Several of the agrochemicals used on plantations are regarded as hazardous by the WHO (World Health Organization). Experts believe approximately 35 pounds of pesticide are sprayed per acre. Often times, more pesticide is applied twice because heavy rains wash it away. Since regulations differ in countries, incidents of spillage have resulted from misuse, improper storage, and improper handling, application and disposal. An agrochemical known as Chlorpyrifos, a potent neurotoxicant, has affected many inhabitants by polluting water supplies, affecting pregnant women and children, causing birth defects as well as disrupting brain development and impairing cognitive functions.

Is there a solution to this fungal disease? Major investments and cooperative research have provided a lot of knowledge on the fungus, but there are a lot of mysteries surrounding the biology and genetics of it. The lack of genetic diversity amongst cultivators and the capability of the new strain TR4, being able to survive in soil for decades has made the Fusarium Oxysporum a malignant force. With little progress on the biological soil fumigation and the development of a resistant variety of banana, many worry about the outcome of this disease.