In the past few weeks we have seen the rapid spread of what could become a devastating threat to the world’s banana population – a fungus known as Panama Disease Tropical Race 4 (TR4).

TR4 is a soil-born fungus that attacks plant roots and is now known to be deadly to the Cavendish banana, which is the world’s most popular and valuable banana crop, making up 95% of banana imports.

The fungal banana disease began its devastating journey in Southeast Asia, decimating tens of thousands of crops in Indonesia, China, Malaysia and the Philippines. TR4 has most recently been discovered in Jordan and Mozambique, indicating its spread beyond Asia to Africa and the Middle East.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) notes that there is already a risk that the fungus has spread to the world’s most important banana-growing areas in Latin America. These countries include Ecuador, Costa Rica and Colombia, where hundreds of thousands of people rely on the banana trade to make a living each day.

Not only is the banana an essential component of more than 400 million people’s diets, it is also an essential component of their monetary livelihood. According to one estimate, TR4 could destroy up to 85% of the world’s banana crop by volume, decimating thousands of plantations across the globe and severely impacting the $8.9 billion banana trade.

One leading banana expert, Professor Rony Swennen claims, “If [TR4] is in Latin America, it is going to be a disaster, whatever the multinationals do. Teams of workers move across different countries. The risk is it is going to spread like a bush fire.”

The FAO has further warned that TR4 represents an “expanded threat to global banana production” and that virtually all export banana plantations will be vulnerable in the coming weeks unless TR4’s spread can be stopped or new resistant strains developed.

The Cavendish banana is not the first to fall prey to such a fungal epidemic. Prior to its cultivation, the Gros Michel banana had been wiped out by a similar strain of the Panama disease.

Current researchers are attempting to discover new banana varieties that are resistant to the fungus or develop disease-resistant GM strains. However, a concerted effort between the industry, research institutions, government and international organizations will be necessary to prevent the spread of the disease.

– Mollie O’Brien

Sources: Bloomberg, The Independent
Photo: Flickr