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Unseasonal slowdown emerges in Australian banana production

The traditional large volumes of “Spring Flush” bananas has not been evident this year, according to the Chairman of the Australian Banana Growers’ Council (ABGC), Doug Phillips.

Production figures over the past few weeks have certainly fallen below the levels that we would usually expect at this time of year.

Growers are noticing lower-than-normal supply levels. Given that demand for bananas remains strong, we are starting to see some tightening of supply.

We had a record year for banana production in the past financial year up to the end of June. This financial year began tracking a little below last year’s levels but the easing in production is now becoming more evident.

The reduction in supply is due to growing conditions including colder than usual Winter conditions which have slowed the crop cycle.

Last year the Australian industry produced 28.6 million cartons or 372,251 tonnes, up about eight per cent from the previous year.

The really pleasing thing for the Australian banana industry over the past year or so has been that demand has remained strong even though production levels across the past financial year were at the higher-end of the scale, of around 500,000 cartons a week or more.

Our supply chain and the Australian Bananas marketing campaign are working very effectively so we’ve had the benefit of moving good volumes while receiving sustainable farm gate prices.

Over the past few weeks, production has fallen below the 500,000-carton-a-week level and as of the start of November is in the low-400,000s. At the current levels, wholesalers and agents have been keen to source more fruit and that’s an excellent sign for growers.

Generally, the outcomes in recent months have been very good for banana growers particularly in the main growing region of north Queensland.”

According to Doug the expected volumes for the current financial year are hard to predict, with growers watching to see whether production increases along with temperatures as Summer approaches.

Like many other countries, Australia mainly grows the Cavendish banana.
“Cavendish is Australia’s major banana variety and accounts for about 95 per cent of banana production. There are some strong niche markets for Lady Fingers and also a small demand for other varieties such as Ducasse and Plantains.

The Australian banana industry is funding research into new varieties both to develop varieties that have better disease resistance as well as ones that will broaden choices for consumers. That research is still underway.”

Despite there being some demand from segments of the retail market for organic bananas, particularly from speciality retailers and farmers’ markets, Doug noted that growers can produce as much as required by the market in Australia.

“Organic bananas are one of the niche markets in Australian banana production. We don’t have exact figures on what percentage of bananas would be produced as certified organic produce but would estimate that it would be less than five per cent of total production.”

The banana industry has also found the best possible way to eradicate the threat of banana freckle disease in Australia, Doug says.

“Banana Freckle (Phyllosticta Cavendishi) is a major disease of bananas and the Australian banana industry supports its eradication from the Northern Territory – the only place in Australia where the disease is found.

Australian banana growers will be required to contribute about A$10 million to A$13 million of the total eradication budget of A$26 million. The contribution will be made by way of a production-based-levy, that is a levy paid on each carton of bananas produced.

The decision to eradicate freckle was made in October by a national group of Commonwealth, State and Territory scientific experts who decided it was technically feasible to eradicate and there would also be a cost benefit.

The cost of eradicating freckle will be well worth it in the long run for both banana production in the Northern Territory and in terms of protecting other growing regions from getting the disease in their bananas.

Freckle is a worrying disease because it affects both the plant, by reducing yield, and also covers the fruit with raised blemishes that makes the affected bananas unsellable.

The national group managing the freckle eradication has looked closely at the serious damage Banana Freckle (Phyllosticta Cavendishii) has caused in overseas banana growing regions and that’s why we are acting as quickly as possible to eradicate it here.

Commercial banana production in the Northern Territory has already been limited by the soil disease Panama Tropical Race 4 (TR4) and if freckle were to take hold it would be very difficult for banana growing to continue there. The risk of it moving to major growing regions, such as north Queensland, is substantial. The disease could spread very rapidly in wet tropical conditions, such as those in north Queensland.
The disease was first found in NT backyard banana plants in July 2013 and quarantine and eradication measures started straight away so the damage has so far been successfully controlled.”

Doug said growers would continue to watch weather conditions.

“I think the most important influences on the banana market at the moment are growing conditions, the quality of bananas we’re achieving and successes with the supply chain and banana marketing.

One of the most important influences on banana production is the weather. Our Winter, which ended at the end of August, was a little cooler than usual and that has meant less bunch production so far this Spring. It’s also continued to stay dry throughout our growing regions in recent months so growers have had to take water up to the plants, particularly when the trees have bunched.

For the major growing region of north Queensland, the wet season begins in December so the weather that we get then will play a big factor in production for the second half of the financial year.

At the moment, production is lower than usual but warmer weather could address that, fruit quality is good and there’s strong market demand so the short-term outlook through to December is positive.”

For more information:
Doug Phillips
ABGC Chairman
www.abgc.org.au


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