Shortage of South African bananas due to drought

In South Africa there is a temporary banana shortage this season, primarily because of the drought and severe water restrictions, with imported bananas (mainly from Ecuador) filling the gap in a market that has for many years been self-sufficient. “If you don’t farm bananas optimally, you get a major decrease because they are very susceptible to water shortages. Some farmers have had to make difficult choices given the water restrictions and many have chosen to irrigate other crops at the expense of their bananas,” Blaine Peckham, chairperson of the Southern KZN Banana Association, explains.

Last week the banana sector suffered another blow with high winds and hail which destroyed significant banana plantations in Tzaneen. Read the full article here.

“It will be six to eight months for the current rain’s positive effect to come in the form of increased production.” The increase in macadamia production (South Africa is now the leading global producer) has also had an adverse effect on banana production: many farmers in the subtropical regions have decided to remove banana plantations to establish macadamia orchards instead. “In KwaZulu-Natal the area under banana plantations has dropped significantly due to the conversion to macadamias.”

Banana farmers are worried that current banana imports by major retailers might become a permanent arrangement and squeeze them out of the market. They refer to the South African poultry sector that is said to be on the verge of collapse due to cheap chicken imports.

In 2013 the South African banana industry was estimated to be worth R1.2 billion (€83 million), but in that same year prices plummeted as bananas produced in Mozambique started coming into South Africa and flooding the market. South African growers find it difficult to compete against growers in Mozambique where production costs, particularly labour, are lower. South Africa usually exports little of its banana crop (the vast majority of exports going to other Southern African countries) but has become a successful exporter of banana propagation material (tissue culture) through companies like the Du Roi Laboratory in Limpopo province.

Virus-free tissue culture banana plants are going to become increasingly significant, as the banana bunchy top virus (BBTV) has been identified in South Africa by the Agricultural Research Council.

Banana bunchy top disease (BBTD) is regarded as one of the most devastating diseases affecting bananas and plantains, according to the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA), resulting in complete crop failure in infected plants. The viral disease, spread by a plant aphid as well as by infected propagation material, has been identified in 14 African countries, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa, and has devastated up to 90% of plantations in major banana production areas of Nigeria. There are sporadic outbreaks of the disease in the Pacific region and in Australia, where stringent control programmes aim at restricting and managing the disease. Complete eradication, however, appears to be impossible and in West Africa the disease is compared to Aids, says Dr Lava Kumar, head of the Germplasm Health Unit & Virology and Diagnostics at IITA in Nigeria.

In June 2015 the disease was first detected in southern KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. “To our knowledge, the spread of the virus was contained on the farm where it was initially found, but unfortunately BBTV was detected in plant samples collected at six different villages surrounding the KwaZulu-Natal farm, indicating the spread of BBTV in the region,” says Dr Elize Jooste of the Agricultural Research Council’s Institute for Tropical and Subtropical Crops in Mbombela, Mpumalanga. The infected plants were removed according to prescription (live plants shouldn’t be removed as more aphids are dispersed in this way, but should first be killed by chemical means) and the farm placed under quarantine by the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.

According to Blaine Peckham, banana producers in the area are very worried because the extent of the infected area is still unknown. The association is currently paying out of their own pocket for a company to scout for the aphids and test them for BBTV to determine whether it’s spreading, but don’t have unlimited financial resources. “Unfortunately by the time you see the symptoms, it is too late, the aphids have already fed on the plant and more than likely spread to other banana plants.” Symptoms include chlorotic mottling and an absence of flowers as well as severe stunting of second generation infected plants. Because of a long incubation period, first generation infected plants can easily go unrecognised. ”The spread of the disease into new areas can initially remain undetected, complicating timely eradication work and prevention of new outbreaks,” Dr Kumar says.

Dr Jooste is at the helm of a recently launched BBTV project in South Africa that will run over three years. “It will focus on surveys of banana plantations in all banana-producing regions of South Africa. During these surveys we will sample plant material as well as aphids from plantations. A non-destructive DNA extraction protocol was optimised recently to allow for detection of BBTV within the aphid. We will use this method as an early detection method for the virus before symptoms are showing on plants.” The project will share information and management strategies with commercial as well as small-scale growers and will be funded by the National Research Foundation.

For more information:
Dr Elize Jooste
ARC-Institute for Tropical and Subtropical Crops
Tel: +27 13 753 7009

Blaine Peckham
Southern KwaZulu-Natal Banana Association
Tel: +27 83 463 0681

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