Fungus threatens to wipe out world's supply of Cavendish banana

WHO officials are warning that Panama disease, caused by the Fusarium wilt fungus, may wipe out the popular Cavendish banana cultivar (pictured).
WHO officials are warning that Panama disease, caused by the Fusarium wilt fungus, may wipe out the popular Cavendish banana cultivar (pictured).PHOTO: CHRIS TAN

The global banana industry is facing "one of the world's most destructive banana diseases," warned the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations in April.

The disease, known as the Panama disease, is caused by the Fusarium wilt fungus. In the 1950s, another strain of the Panama disease practically wiped out another type of banana, the Gros Michel.

The main banana type affected by the disease is the Cavendish banana, which makes up 47 per cent of bananas grown worldwide, according to the FAO.

According to researchers at Wageningen University and Research Centre who started the website Panama Disease, the new strain comes from South-east Asia.

 

Discovered in 1992, it has since wiped out plantations in China, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines.

The outbreak of the disease has affected traders and growers worldwide.

The International Banana Congress, which takes place from Tuesday (April 19) to Friday, had to change its venue from Costa Rica to Miami.

The venue change came about over fears that those attending the congress might transport the disease via dirt on their shoes.

Latin America is the main source of bananas for North American and European consumers, according to CNN.

The damage caused by this outbreak is estimated to cost more than US$400 million (S$538 million).

Bananas are particularly vulnerable to disease because most commercial bananas produced are genetically identical. Once a plant is infected with the disease, nearby plants are easily contaminated.

In response, scientists from Taiwan have tried genetically modifying the Cavendish banana.

According to Dr Inge Van den Bergh, a senior scientist at Bioversity International in Belgium, Taiwan is now testing "mutant" Cavendish bananas in the Philippines and China.

She told CNNMoney that although the results were quite promising, the bananas were not necessarily as tasty or suitable for long-distance transport.