Malaysia: Banana growers' big headache

About 40 per cent of banana plants in the country are being affected by a type of bacteria, destroying crops and affecting the livelihood of farmers. Touted as the HIV of banana plants, the bacteria Ralstonia solanacearum was first detected in Pontian, Johor, in March 2007. To date, it has spread extensively to other states in the peninsula, namely Kedah, Perak, Negri Sembilan, Malacca, Pahang and Kelantan. The bacteria attack the fruits causing them to rot before they ripen. Pisang awak, pisang Abu and pisang nipah -- the most popular bananas used in cooking -- have almost "disappeared" as farmers have virtually abandoned their farms due to the destroyed crops. Bananas, the second largest commercially planted fruit crop in the country, cover more than 26,000ha or over 11 per cent of the total fruit-growing areas.

About 50 per cent of the banana-growing areas is cultivated with pisang berangan or the cavendish type. The other popular varieties are pisang mas, pisang rastali, pisang raja, pisang awak, pisang Abu, pisang nangka and pisang tanduk. Records from the Malaysian Agricultural Research and Development Institute (Mardi) showed the top three banana-producing states are Johor, which has 7,161ha of banana-growing areas, followed by Pahang (3,927ha) and Sarawak (3,729ha). Mardi deputy director (pest and disease management programme) Dr Mohamad Roff Mohd Noor said the disease was believed to have been inadvertently brought into the country by farmers who carried with them planting equipment stained with soil. He said most farmers were shocked to see their crops destroyed by the disease and all they could do was abandon their farms.

"The disease is affecting the government's agriculture transformation programme as farmers are afraid to start replanting. "Our duty is to disseminate information to farmers to minimise the spread of the disease." A survey conducted by the Agriculture Department to determine the occurrence of the disease in Johor showed that about 60 per cent of 3,212ha of banana-planting areas were affected. Initially, the disease attacked only cooking bananas. The first case of dessert bananas being affected was pisang berangan, reported a year ago in Perak. The popular dessert bananas are pisang mas, pisang berangan, pisang rastali and pisang embun while the popular cooking varieties are pisang nangka, pisang raja, pisang awak, pisang Abu and pisang tanduk. Most of the bananas produced were consumed locally and about 10 per cent are exported, mainly to Singapore, Brunei, Hong Kong and the Middle East. Roff said two ways to control the disease was through de-budding or bagging the flowers with polyethylene bags to control them from being spread by insects and field sanitation by removing decaying leaves, infected plants and sterilising farming equipment.


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