The infestation of Panama disease or fusarium wilt in banana plantations, if not immediately controlled, could wipe out local cavendish bananas, banana growers and exporters said on Tuesday.
Pilipino Banana Growers and Exporters Association (PBGEA) Executive Director Stephen Antig said the disease keeps growers and exporters on their toes.
“The industry is definitely worried that the cavendish variety might become obsolete,” Antig told the BusinessMirror in an interview.
Citing data from the Department of Agriculture (DA), Antig said about 15,500 hectares of banana plantations, mostly in Region 11, have already been affected by the disease.
“Assuming a production level of 3,200 boxes per hectare at the current price of $9 to $10 [per box], the potential damage should run to billions of pesos. To a certain extent, the disease has also affected our exports,” he said. Panama disease is a fungal disease caused by Fusarium oxysporum f. sp. cubense that leads to the yellowing and wilting of banana leaves and, eventually, the death of the plant.
A deadly strain of Panama disease in the 1950s left the banana variety called Gros Michel virtually extinct. Growers shifted to planting the cavendish variety, which is considered inferior but resistant to the disease. However, a new strain of the disease has surfaced and again poses a threat to banana plantations around the world. Antig said local growers want to contain the spread of the disease via quarantine measures.
Connie Sugillon, supervising agriculturist of the Bureau of Plant Industry in Region 11, said in an interview that quarantine plays an important role in controlling the movement of infected bananas and keeping other trees healthy.
“There are microorganisms used to control the disease in affected trees,” she added.
According to Antig and Sugillon, research on a new variety of banana that is resistant to the Panama disease has been ongoing for three years now.
Antig said experiment sites are in Calinan, Davao City, and range from 10 to 20 hectares.
He said the initial results of the experiment are “promising,” as companies have successfully shipped small volumes of the new disease-resistant variant to Japan and China.
“Some companies have been exporting the new variant and it would seem to be acceptable to the market. The volume though is not big as to replace the cavendish, which is the preferred variety,” Antig said.
However, Sugillon said the new variety could be commercialized after the research has been completed. She also said farmers will have to be taught about the proper planting techniques for the new variant so they can reap “export-quality” bananas.
Pending the commercialization of the new variety, Sugillon said the DA has begun distributing the disease-resistant planting materials to small banana growers.
“To date, about 50,000 small growers have already benefited from this program,” she said.
Sugillon added that it may take two to three years to complete the study and commercialize the disease-resistant banana variety. For his part, Antig said the Panama disease is just one of the challenges facing the local banana industry.
“We also have to contend with the peace and order situation, government policies that are not supportive of agriculture and, most of all, climate change,” he said.
Antig added that the country’s banana production and exports may drop by as much as 30 percent this year due to El Niño. He said the possibility of La Niña in the latter part of 2016 could also pose a threat to the country’s banana output.
Data from the Philippine Statistics Authority showed the country’s banana production in 2015 rose by 2.24 percent to 9.08 million metric tons from 8.88 MMT in 2014.