DAVAO CITY—The dreaded Fusarium wilt or Panama disease may have already ravaged more than a quarter of all the banana plantations in Mindanao, according to plantation owners in the region.
Areas infected by Panama disease may have already doubled to 30,000 hectares, from 15,000 hectares identified by the Department of Agriculture (DA) in 2015, said Victor S. Mercado Jr., president and chief executive officer of the Marsman-Drysdale Agribusiness Group.
Planters said the spread of the disease was “expected” due to the lack of appropriate biosafety measures in farms owned by financially handicapped growers. Small banana plantations account for almost half of the total 88,667 hectares planted with the Cavendish variety.
Mercado also said “numerous potholes” in banana plantations were observed during a helicopter sortie. “This is a likely indication of how the disease has crept through banana areas.”
Fusarium wilt is a soil-borne fungal disease that initially attacks the roots of banana plants. The disease is known to turn the leaves of banana plants to yellow from green before these become wilted.
Plant pathologists have identified the Fusarium oxysporum f. sp. cubense, as the TR4 strain of the Panama disease that affects the Cavendish variety. Plantations ravaged by the disease can no longer be planted with banana and other soft-stemmed crops.
Scientists said humans and vehicles should be disinfected prior to entering other banana plantations. Also, implements used in infected farms should not be used in other plantations to prevent the spread of the disease.
Alberto Paterno F. Bacani, president and CEO of Unifrutti Philippines, concurred with Mercado and added that the spread of Fusarium wilt was expected because there is still no known cure for it.
“Other factors, like flood and disinfected vehicles that continue to traverse the farms, [contribute to the spread of the disease],” said Bacani.
He said it is not yet known if plantations that will serve as expansion areas were not struck by Panama disease. Bacani noted that lands now occupied by the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao are the only suitable and available lands for bananas in the region.
He added that banana growers are no longer considering lands in Visayas. “It is always visited by typhoons. Also, there are no ports there.”
However, Bacani said all is not yet lost as planters have implemented a number of measures to prevent the disease from wiping out plantations. “We have made progress in recovering some of our areas affected by the Panama disease. We have recovered some 218 hectares by planting them with the resistant variety [GCTCV] 218.”
He said the fruits were small compared to the regular Cavendish variety that the Philippines exports to its major buyers—China, Japan, South Korea and the Middle East.
“Compared to the Cavendish, these resistant varieties would be about 22 to 25 kilograms a bunch. The Cavendish planted in the lowlands would be heavier at 32 kg,” said Bacani.
He said customers in these markets should be educated about this variety so they will know that these were grown in the Philippines.
Mercado also said small banana growers should be told that the size and quality of the resistant varieties could still be improved if they will observe good agricultural practices.
“They need to observe good farm management, and good housekeeping, for the plants to grow well and bear good quality fruits,” he said.
Bacani said government is crucial to help planters prevent the spread of the disease. “While the plantations are seen as the big boys and, therefore, may be left to fend for themselves, the [plight of] small growers is also a concern because plantations also rely on small growers.”
He said government support could come in the form of disinfection and implementing the necessary quarantine measures.
“Other countries, like those in Latin America, received help from their governments when they were recently struck by Panama disease,” said Bacani.
“Their governments quarantined [entire plantations]. That is a good move to contain the spread of the disease,” he added.