By Wageningen University & Research
The banana has been severely affected by fungal diseases that can only be combated by using more and more plant protection products. In the last century, the much-loved Gros Michel banana variety was wiped out as a result of Panama disease. But now the replacement variety Cavendish – available in every supermarket – is at risk. At his inauguration as professor by special appointment for Tropical Phytopathology at Wageningen University & Research recently, Professor Gert Kema reveals what it will take to save the banana.
The Cavendish export banana does well in all types of soil and for years showed little susceptibility to Panama disease. For this reason, major banana producers planted the Cavendish en masse on the defunct Gros Michel plantations. The ‘agronomic miracle,’ as Cavendish has been dubbed, came to dominate the international market and has partly supplanted local varieties in India and East Africa, says Professor Kema. Moreover, retailers keep the kilo price to a minimum because bananas generate top turnovers in supermarkets. They are money machines, similar to cotton T-shirts. As with other “orphan crops,” a monetary investment has lagged behind in the financially thriving banana industry. No money has been put into basic scientific research. Now we know that was the wrong decision.
Return of Panama disease
Panama disease is caused by a Fusarium fungus, which has now developed an extremely virulent strain known as TR4 (Tropical Race 4), with disastrous consequences. What’s more, there are no seeds banks with propagating material for new varieties to replace the Cavendish. ˜We are back to square one,” concludes the professor. “Cavendish has one major drawback: there is no genetic variation. This means that the bananas of the big brands and fair-trade bananas are genetically identical. They are clones grown in extreme monocultures and are therefore all equally sensitive to fungal diseases,” he says in his inaugural address. A Tropical phytopathology – dragging orphan crops into the spotlight.