It’s a bad day for banana enthusiasts. A new fungus that causes deadly symptoms for banana crops is now in the Americas. Though the fungus isn’t new, it could cause massive destruction to banana plantations in the world’s largest exporting countries like Ecuador and Costa Rica.
The banana-killing fungus could do more than destroy the bright yellow fruit, though. If it spreads rampantly throughout the Americas as scientists fear, it could devastate national economies. Not to mention it would increase banana prices around the world.
Recently, the first case of Fusarium wilt tropical race 4 (TR4) in the Americas was identified in Colombia. Since then, the Colombian Agricultural Institute has quarantined four banana plantations in the northern region of the country.
The fungus is already prevalent in Asian countries like Indonesia and India, however, until now, it hadn’t reached the Americas. It kills banana plants by clogging their vascular system. The results are like heart attacks for bananas.
TR4 is a relative of Panama disease, which ravaged banana plantations around the world in the 1960s. The previous outbreak forced growers to replant with a more disease-resistant variety of banana: the Cavendish. Though some argue it doesn’t taste as good as the previously grown Gros Miche, the Cavendish has remained free of plague so far.
Now though, it may be on the brink of following its predecessor into the history books. Since TR4 spreads through soil and infected plants, it is nearly impossible to determine exactly how it reached Colombia. However, research does show that the fungus remains in the soil for decades after it takes root.
Unfortunately, banana plants that have been infected with TR4 are beyond hope. As the fungus quickly spreads throughout a plantation, the only way to contain it is to burn everything to the ground. Even then, some spores can escape through runoff.
It seems that it is only a matter of time before TR4 spreads throughout the Americas.
Fortunately, scientists have been working on solutions to try and save plantations from the fungus. One technique includes adding certain biomass to the soil and covering it in plastic. As decomposition occurs, gas is released and trapped by the plastic and can be toxic to the spores.
Another solution is to do what farmers did last time: plant a disease-resistant type of banana. However, there isn’t a clear-cut replacement this time around. In fact, it seems like the only variety hearty enough to survive despite TR4 is a genetically modified Cavendish. It remains to be seen whether that will satisfy today’s choosy consumers.
Gert Kema, a plant pathologist at Wageningen University says, “This is a turning point for the industry.”
While it is clear that current cultivation practices are a ticking time bomb, it is less clear what the solution is. For now, consumers should enjoy bananas for a few cents per pound while they last.