Latin American Banana Production Faces Threats from Disease

The banana fruit’s deadliest disease, Panama Tropical Race 4 (TR4), is spreading across Latin America. Virtually undetectable and untreatable, the disease is a serious threat to farmers of Cavendish bananas, the most commercialized banana variety in the world.

TR4, a fungal disease which lives in the soil, remains undetected for decades and spreads easily via contaminated plant material, water, and soil. It can lead to a 100 percent yield loss of the Cavendish banana.

Globally, the Cavendish banana accounts for 47 percent of global production. In 2019, 80 percent of global banana exports came from Latin America and the Caribbean. In Ecuador alone, the world’s largest exporter of bananas, its trade value amounted to over US$3 billion in 2019.

The importance of Cavendish bananas for Latin America’s economy makes the presence of TR4 particularly concerning. TR4 was first reported in Latin America in 2019, after being detected in Colombia. This was followed by a second report in northern Peru in April 2021.

Both cases triggered the declaration of a national emergency in Colombia and Peru, and swift action by companies and government institutions alike, promoting infrastructure investment and biosecurity protocols across Latin American countries.

Neighboring countries such as Ecuador are now on high alert for TR4. Juan José Pons, coordinator of the Ecuadorian Banana Cluster, tells Food Tank that while TR4 has not yet been detected in Ecuador, the disease “will not only affect the banana sector but will also jeopardize the economic stability of the country.”

In Ecuador, those most at risk are the 5,000 smallholder farms who make up 30 percent of banana plantations. Preventative measures like biosecurity protocols, and relevant agricultural practices involve education and training for farmers, workers, and others involved in banana production.

“This has a major economic impact as they need to use more resources than they had in mind to make an extra effort against this pest,” Pons tells Food Tank.

The Ecuadorian government is putting strict measures in place to prevent the spread of TR4. They “set up checkpoints at all border crossing points. Every truckload is being checked and measures include sterilizing containers as well as putting stricter phytosanitary rules in place for the import of banana plant material,” Pons tells Food Tank.

Juan José Pons urges that “all farmers should be doing everything possible to prevent TR4 from attacking their crops.”

Photo courtesy of Vije Vijendranath, Unsplash

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