A fungus is threatening to decimate the world's banana production, causing huge commercial losses and enormous damage to the livelihoods of the 400 million people who depend on the most commercialised fruit in the world, both as a staple food and as a source of income.
The FAO and its partners - Bioversity International, the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) and the World Banana Forum - have launched a global program (which requires $ 98 million dollars in funding) to stop and treat a new strain - tropical race 4 (TR4) - of Fusarium wilt, a harmful disease that can last years in soils and spread to new fields and places through various means, such as planting materials, water, footwear, agricultural tools and infected vehicles.
"This is a serious threat to banana production in several regions of the world. We must act quickly to prevent it from spreading beyond its current scope and to help affected countries in their efforts to cope with the disease. The long-term resilience of banana production systems can only be improved by continuous monitoring, robust containment strategies, strengthening national capacities, and improving international collaboration to use integrated approaches to treat the disease," stated Hans Dreyer, director of Plant Production and Protection Division of the FAO.
Fusarium wilt TR4 was first detected in Southeast Asia in the 1990s. Currently it affects 19 areas in 10 countries, including the Near East, South Asia, and Mozambique, in the sub-Saharan Africa. In principle, the global program aims to treat and prevent the spread of the disease in 67 countries. Without coordinated intervention, scientists estimate that in 2040 the disease could affect 1.6 million hectares of land that are currently used for banana cultivation, i.e. one sixth of the world's current production with an estimated annual value of 10 billion dollars. The goal of the program is to reduce the areas that could potentially be affected by up to 60%.
"There is also a significant lack of knowledge about the biology and treatment of the fungus, which we intend to remedy through this collaborative initiative by promoting an improvement in biodiversity and introducing improved agronomic practices in banana production systems," said Ann Tutwiler, the General Director of Bioversity International, who represents her organization and IITA.
"The disease is also a major concern for this popular fruit's industry and trade," added Pascal Liu, the coordinator of the World Banana Forum.
The five-year program is designed to take advantage of existing initiatives that address the disease and focuses on strengthening local technical capacities, and supporting the development of technologies and scientific tools by investigating the biology and epidemiology of the fungus, its detection and surveillance, rapid containment actions, soil health, and the development of resistant varieties.
Inspection, surveillance and rapid response measures will be developed in areas that are free of the disease or are affected for the first time. In the areas already affected, the program will develop improved and integrated treatment techniques for the disease, and researchers will search for and use varieties that are resistant to it. According to estimates, if the program is implemented effectively, in 20 years it will generate benefits of 98 to 196 US dollars for each dollar invested.