The world’s $11 billion dollar banana industry could be wiped out by the Panama disease, a fungicide resistant pathogen that’s spreading across Australia, South Asia, Africa and the Middle East.
Experts say the spread to South America is now inevitable – a major problem, given the region grows 82 percent of Cavendish bananas, the world’s most popular variety. In Australia, Cavendish bananas make up 95 percent of local production.
Transmitted by water and soil, the Panama disease can lay dormant for as long as 30 years and there’s currently no way to kill it.
The same disease drove the Gros Michel banana to near-extinction in the 1960s after the fungus was first reported in Queensland’s banana crops in 1876.
"Fortunately, there was a remedy: Cavendish bananas – maintained as interesting specimens in botanical gardens in the United Kingdom and in the United Fruit Company collection in Honduras – were identified as resistant substitutes for Gros Michel," according to researchers from Wageningen University.
"A new clone was 'born' that, along with the new tissue culture techniques, helped save and globalise banana production."
The modern strain of Panama disease has evolved to infect the Cavendish banana with the same speed it decimated the Gros Michel.
Unfortunately, there are no easy solutions. Firstly, scientists must develop a diagnostic test so infected crops can be identified and destroyed.
Additionally, it’s time to start developing a replacement for the Cavendish banana, one that is resistant to the new strain of Panama disease.
“Developing new banana cultivars, however, requires major investments in research and development and the recognition of the banana as a global staple and cash crop (rather than an orphan crop) that supports the livelihoods of millions of small-holder farmers," the researchers warn.
While the disease may take it’s time to spread, without major action the bananas days are numbered.