Mindanao banana growers winning war vs Panama disease

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The Department of Agriculture (DA) is now seeing a better future for banana growers in the Davao region, as the area starts to recover from the infestation of the fusarium wilt two years ago.

DA Region 11 science research specialist Virgilio Gutierrez said the government is now monitoring the outcome of the interventions it had undertaken to resolve the incidence of fusarium wilt that affected at least 15,500 hectares of plantations in southern Mindanao.

“We are just monitoring now the interventions that we gave to the affected farmers. We are making the follow-ups, despite the lack in budget, as part of the high-value crop development program of the regional office,” Gutierrez, who is also DA’s focal person for fusarium wilt, told the BusinessMirror.

Davao del Norte was the most affected province in the region, followed by Compostela Valley, Davao City, Davao del Sur and Davao Oriental, according to Gutierrez.

The DA has poured in P102.2 million worth of interventions throughout 2015 and 2016 to the farmers affected by Panama disease, a type of fusarium wilt popularly known as fusarium wilt tropical race 4 (TR4).

Under the Panama-disease control program of the DA, a farmer would be paid P500 for every wilted plant or stump of banana that would be burned according to quarantine protocols.

The payment was intended to encourage farmers to observe proper disposal of each banana plant affected by the fusarium wilt, a soil borne fungus that attacks the roots of the banana plants and turns leaves into wilted yellow. The original strain of the disease was already virulent that it had wiped out the plantations in Panama, hence its common name.

“About 7.147 million of small banana growers benefited throughout the program, receiving various interventions distributed to them,” Gutierrez said.

New harvest

For the program, the DA bought some 1.333 million of Panama-resistant banana varieties that were ready to be planted, according to Gutierrez. These varieties include giant cavendish tissue cultured (GCTC) variant 218 and variant 219, the only two varieties of cavendish banana recommended to be planted again in the Panama-affected soil.

Gutierrez said the government started the distribution at the start of 2017 some 200,000 plantlets harvestable after seven months.

“[It has been] estimate that the farmers will harvest about 2,132,800 boxes of bananas, which have an income of P37.324 million at P175 per box at current price,” he added.

The DA official said out of the 15,500 hectares affected by fusarium wilt, they have provided interventions in at least 10,000 hectares. The interventions include eradication of pest, dispersal of biocontrol agents for fusarium wilt, and distribution of seeds of cacao, coffee and vegetable for crop shifting.

“The remaining 5,000 hectares are owned and managed with those who have capability to solve the pest. So, the 10,000 hectares really involved small banana growers, which is the priority of the department,” Gutirrez added. “But we conducted trainings on how to control and manage the disease for all concerned farmers.”

Gutierrez said the GCTC 218 and 219 varieties were well-accepted by the local banana growers, to the extent that more and more farmers wanted to buy the disease-resistant varieties.

“The farmers really liked 218 and 219 as a resistant variety against fusarium. In fact, there are a lot of farmers who want to buy more,” he added. “But because we are short of budget, we can only prioritize the small banana growers.”

Prevention

But Gutierrez is aware that the region’s recovery is just the start of a bigger challenge: Prevention. “We really don’t have an assurance that we won’t be hit again by Panama disease. As long as there are bananas, there’s really no guarantee that Panama disease will not strike again,” he said.

“The good thing we can do is that we should be aware on how to manage the disease. For example, we should be knowledgeable on how it spreads and what can be done to prevent it from spreading to unaffected areas,” he added.

Gutierrez also said there is a need for the government to establish a laboratory where GCTC 218 and 219 will be produced to cater the needs of the local industry for such varieties.

“And we do not stop with these varieties. We are conducting continuous selection process, because it doesn’t mean that these varieties [218 and 219] are enough,” he added. “We should continue the selection process in determining resistant varieties.”

If there’s any benefit at all out of the infestation, Gutierrez said, banana growers in Region 11 are now more aware of the complexities of Panama disease, and they are better prepared than before.

“I think they are more equipped now, particularly those in the areas affected by Panama [disease]. The farmers know how to correctly manage the incidence of such disease now,” he said.

“But I cannot also say that it applies to all banana growers. There are still some small growers who are not knowledgeable about the matter,” he added.

Gutierrez said there has been no new reported incidence of Panama disease in the country this year.

In a news report, the Pilipino Banana Growers and Exporters Association (PBGEA) estimated that the industry loses around 55.5 million boxes of harvest, estimated to be worth some $333 million, from Panama disease.

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations identified TR4 as a major threat affecting the global banana production, affecting the livelihoods of local populations and especially income opportunities for smallholder banana farmers.

“Besides jeopardizing harvests and, thereby, income opportunities, TR4 also raises the price of production because of the high costs of preventative measures and treatments of affected plantations,” the FAO said.

“Of direct and particular concern is the impact of banana diseases on global trade, particularly if importing countries react with import restrictions, tightened SPS [sanitary and phytosanitary] measures or additional controls,” the FAO added.

FAO said the disease was discovered around 1992 to 1993 in Malaysia and spread quickly to Taiwan and China, where most of all its banana-producing areas were affected.

“Production in Australia’s Northern Territory, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines has also been severely affected by TR4,” it said.

“In 2013 TR4 was furthermore discovered on a farm in northern Mozambique, as well as in Oman and Jordan, and in 2015, it was found in Lebanon and Pakistan,” it added.