The banana is the most popular fruit in the world. In the 1950s, banana growers faced a serious threat in the form of ‘fusarium wilt’, popularly known as Panama disease.
This lethal fungus wiped out almost all plantations in Central and South America, which had grown a type of banana known as the Gros Michel. The industry was only saved by the adoption of a more resistant cultivar, the Cavendish.
A new epidemic of Panama disease has broken out to which the Cavendish is also susceptible. Wageningen University & Research (WUR) is working closely alongside two Dutch agro-technology companies to arm banana growers in the Philippines against this latest threat. Senior researcher Gert Kema explains the ‘PromoBanana’ project.
"WUR has considerable expertise and is ideally placed to arrive at practical solutions based on various disciplines. The decision to set up a project to address banana disease in the Philippines was not taken on a whim. PromoBanana is the third WUR project to do so, and our previous projects have involved several students from the Philippines itself. We joined forces with two private sector companies, ClearDetections BV and SoilCares BV, to produce a funding application under the Facility for Sustainable Enterprise and Food Security (FDOV), which exists to support public-private partnerships working to improve food security."
A virulent fungus
Panama disease is particularly virulent and persistent. “It is caused by a soil-borne fungus, Fusarium oxysporum, which invades the plants’ vascular system. The leaves turn yellow and wilt, and eventually the plant dies from dehydration. But the fungus itself does not die: it lies dormant in the soil for decades. Bananas are one of the Philippines’ main export products and the banana industry is of crucial importance to the national economy. Panama disease poses a huge threat to both employment and food security. As yet, no one has found a way of controlling the disease. It is therefore very important to know more about where the fungus can be found and precisely how it spreads."
The PromoBanana consortium is working to develop practical ways to help growers avoid the dire consequences of Panama disease. "SoilCares is a specialist in soil fertility research, while ClearDetections focuses on modern diagnostics. We are working alongside two local banana companies. The project involves modernising and expanding their laboratories so that they can act as the ‘centre of expertise’ for growers throughout the region, who will be able to bring samples of soil, water and plants for analysis,” states Gert. “But we will also go to them. We are developing mobile lab equipment and methods. Everything is very user friendly – anyone can learn to use the equipment in an afternoon – and it all fits in the boot of a car. All growers will be able to determine whether their plants are healthy and take whatever action is necessary.”
Ready to go
"Cooperation with the local partners has been excellent but the project has been subject to some delay because the membership of the Dutch consortium changed. Fortunately, the Netherlands Enterprise Agency was very flexible. The plans have now been finalised and we are ready to go! I think it is fantastic that the Dutch government supports partnerships like ours, which develop innovations of practical value to people in other parts of the world. The knowledge that we generate is shared with the field by means of leaflets and information meetings. There has even been talk of an app.”