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Will India’s banana farms be able to face Panama wilt?

The cool and humid air in the Siddharthnagar district of Uttar Pradesh is just right for bananas, which have grown well rounded and are ready to be picked on the farm of grower, Maurya. Yet, on one part of his land, rows of banana plants stand withered, discoloured and without any bunches.

“There are at least 5,000 such plants,” he says, with a heavy voice. “We knew would face losses because of the COVID-19 pandemic. But we were not prepared for a disaster like this. The leaves started turning yellow around May. By July, I could see them dying. I have sprayed all kinds of pesticides and other chemicals and spent almost Rs 1.2 mln [€14.400] on their upkeep in the past one-and-a-half year. I don’t think I will recover the investment,” Maurya says.

The story is no different for the 20 other banana farmers in his village -Belwa- who say their earnings have reduced to less than half. “We have been facing the infection for the past four to five years. But this year, it spread rapidly due to excessive rainfall,” says Chhotu Chaudhary, who owns about 1 ha. “A few plant scientists have visited our village in recent months. They say it is a type of cancer for which there is no cure.”

Siddharthnagar has been identified as one of the hotbeds of panama wilt infection, which is now pushing the world’s most cherished fruit to the verge of extinction. The infection is caused by a new strain of an old enemy — Fusraium oxysporum, a soil fungus.

Since its appearance in Taiwan 50 years ago, the disease has spread to 18 countries, hopping continents — it was first reported in Asia in 1970, in Australia in 1997, in Africa in 2013 and in Latin America in 2019 — and is jeopardising the $25-billion banana industry.

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