An inconvenient truth, the banana industry in Asia and the Philippines

A catastrophic dilemma is now lurking in the midst of Asia’s banana industry.
The deadly Fusarium wilt (Panama wilt) Tropical Race 4 (TR4) disease has long emerged in China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Taiwan, and the Philippines. But of late, aggressive spread has been reported specifically in the Philippines and China, two major Cavendish producers in the world.

Participants of the “Socio-economic Impacts of Fusarium Wilt Disease of Cavendish Banana in the Asia-Pacific Region” Consultation-Workshop. Pictured at the table are; Dr. Patricio S. Faylon of PCAARRD, Dr. Yu-Tsai Huang of FFTC, Dr. Agustin B. Molinaof Bioversity International and Dr. Chih-Ping Chao, Chairman of BAPNET

Many farms in Davao region have been known to be severely affected by TR4 but the extent of damage and epidemics was not clear. “I did not realize that the Fusarium wilt problem has already spread like a bushfire,” sadly remarked Dr. Molina, Regional Coordinator of Bioversity International-Asia, Pacific and Oceanic. This he voiced after Mr. Remigio Garcia, President of the Mindanao Banana Farmers and Exporters Association (MBFEA), reported that about 39% (5,900 hectares) of their members’ aggregate Cavendish plantation area had been infected. Three thousand (3,000) hectares of which had been abandoned.

Contrary to earlier media reports in the Philippines, the TR4 devastation goes by the thousands of hectares and not mere hundreds. This does not even account the potential disease infestation in big commercial plantations.

The Pilipino Banana Growers and Exporters Association (PBGEA), which comprises big industry players, admitted that their farms have also been affected by the disease but exact data have yet to be known. They painted a bleak scenario during the workshop in saying that, “If left without rigid interventions, the rapid spread of the disease can eliminate the entire export banana industry in five (5) years’ time.”
In the event of an industry breakdown, the economic ramifications would surely create far-reaching social impacts to millions of Filipinos that depend on the industry. According to PBGEA, assuming a ratio of four (4) farmers working on a hectare of land, this would result in around 330,000 workers losing their jobs with annual wages totalling PhP42.3B. In a family of 5, 66,000 families would potentially lose their livelihood due to this disease epidemic.

In a study conducted by Bioversity with the Lapanday Foods Corporation (a private banana exporter based in Davao City), DA-BAR and PCAARRD, some Cavendish varieties have shown resistance to TR4. Particular to the GCTCVs (Giant Cavendish Tissue Culture Variants) introduced by Bioversity from Taiwan, these varieties exhibited high disease resistance. The GCTCV varieties show high acceptability in the international market due to its sweeter taste than the regular variety; although bunches are a little inferior to the susceptible commercial variety. These new varieties are viable options for the small-scale independent Cavendish growers who are most affected by the disease epidemic due to limited technical capability and infrastructure compared with the big industry players.

Bioversity, in collaboration with local government research institutions, is now actively promoting these varieties in the Philippines. At least 20 small-scale Cavendish growers have now adopted the varieties. This project includes validation of production protocols and post-harvest and market protocols.

For more information:
Bernadette P. Joven
Bioversity International
Tel: +(63) 49 536 053 

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