By Oliver Milman
Banana experts from around the world have gathered in Florida to find a way to halt a disease that is wiping out the fruit across the world, amid mounting fears that it may soon invade Latin America.
The International Banana Congress was shifted to Miami at the last minute from Costa Rica, following concerns that attendees would spread the disease, known as “Panama disease” or “Fusarium wilt”, to the region via contaminated soil on their shoes.
The fungal disease has already decimated banana crops in south-east Asia, virtually wiping out Indonesia’s banana exports and causing misery for growers in the Philippines, China, the Middle East and parts of Africa. Fusarium wilt was first seen in Australia and Taiwan and is spread via soil, water and contaminated farm equipment.
About 1,000 delegates at the International Banana Congress are desperately attempting to craft a plan to both stop the spread of the disease and also find a replacement type of banana that won’t be susceptible to the fungus.
Should the disease affect banana crops in South America, the $36bn banana industry could be faced with escalating prices and many smaller operators going out of business. Demand for the produce remains strong: Americans eat bananas almost as much as apples and oranges combined.
Fazil Dusunceli, an expert at the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, said there was little confidence the disease could be stopped before it reaches Latin America, which has caused “increased worry and panic” among growers of the popular yellow fruit.
“Though spread may not be immediate it would cause greater concern among the major banana producing and exporting countries,” he told the Guardian. “In fact, the problem is when it is noticed, it may be already too late to effectively stop it from spreading, as the disease may have spread further.
“Although not yet detected in Latin America it is considered as a major concern because once the disease gets into a plantation, it is not possible to eradicate it fully and very difficult to stop its spread. Thus its prevention is key for its control and countries need to be watchful and prepared.”
Fusarium wilt is the biggest crisis facing the banana industry since a different strain of fungus wiped out crops across Latin America in the first half of the last century. Banana splits can only be enjoyed worldwide today due to a decision to switch from the Gros Michel banana – then the industry favorite – to the Cavendish. Although less tasty than the luxuriant Gros Michel, the Cavendish was resistant to the fungus.
Unfortunately the Cavendish, which now represents 99% of the banana market, is falling victim to the latest fungal outbreak, causing furrowed brows among banana researchers who have toiled for years to find a suitable replacement.
Hope lies in a promising contender known rather coldly as GCTCV-219, devised by the Taiwan Banana Research Institute. Taiwanese banana scientists claim the new genre has a shape and taste similar to the ailing Cavendish.
However, Dusunceli has a note of caution for banana enthusiasts. “Although many institutions are working on development of resistant varieties and there are some promising developments in this regard, as for now there is no confirmed variety fully resistant to the disease and adaptive to different conditions for wide-scale use,” he said.
While the global supply is unlikely to come under any short-term pressure, the banana industry is using the conference to ensure there are no further complications in the development of their prized crop.
“We have to work together, united, to find progress on this,” said Jorge Sauma, chief executive of Costa Rica’s National Banana Corporation. “It’s difficult to predict the future of the Cavendish. If you do all the measures together and work together, it’s possible to stop the disease. It’s difficult to tell the future but we are positive. We have the best brains from five continents here to work this out.”