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Devastating banana freckle disease found in Northern Territory

The Guardian

Industry scrambles to limit infestation from spreading to Queensland

Banana freckle disease has been discovered in the Northern Territory, sparking fears of an outbreak that could threaten the local banana industry.

It is the first discovery of the disease since Australia was declared banana freckle-free in 2019. The fungal disease causes rough sandpaper-like spots to form on banana plants and their fruit.

The first case of the new outbreak was discovered two weeks ago in the Batchelor-Rum Jungle area, about 105km south of Darwin. At least two more cases have since been discovered.

The CEO of NT Farmers, Paul Burke, says that widespread monitoring of the NT’s “Top End” had not uncovered any more cases but authorities remain on alert.

“We’ve set up a high-level steering committee that includes nursery and garden associations, the banana industry council, both levels of government and NT farmers,” Burke said.

“We don’t have a plan yet, but we are working on it. And certainly industry is very conscious of the previous incursion, and ensuring that we don’t make the same mistakes.”

Phyllosticta cavendishii is a fungus found across Asia named for theCavendish bananas it attacks. Infected fruit remains edible and unchanged, but the fungus candrastically reduce the overall productivity and yield of a plant by limiting its ability to photosynthesise.

The less-than appetising rash also makes bananas infected by the fungus difficult to sell at market.

Dr Rosie Godwin, a research and development manager for the Australian Banana Growers’ Council, said eradicating the disease last time involved the removal of thousands of banana plants from the Territory, an approach criticised by some banana growers who felt it was too heavy-handed.

But she says it was ultimately successful.

“We’re one of the only countries in the whole world that managed to eradicate freckle as a disease,” Godwin said. “Having that disease reach our main production area would be a huge extra cost burden on them to control it.”

Around 96% of Australian banana production occurs in northern Queensland, where Godwin said farmers she has spoken to have expressed concerns over the spread of the disease.

Restrictions have been imposed to limit the spread, including requiring all bananas grown in the NT to be sold within the territory and banning the movement of fruit across the border.

Burke said the outbreak does not appear to have had any significant impact on prices at the consumer end, but would increase costs for farmers.

“I’ve spoken to all the operators, and there’s a level of concern … a high level of concern, but they will be waiting to see what a response plan will look like over the coming months.”

  • Anyone that spots a banana freckle infection can call the Exotic Plant Pest Hotline on 1800 084 881.

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