Editorial: The dreaded Panama disease

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Friday, October 14, 2011

THE Panama disease or Fusarium Wilt is spreading shivers down the collective spines of banana exporters here. The disease, caused by a fungus, can wipe out entire croplands and hang around even for three decades hence. Worse, there is no cure for it.

The Davao-based Pilipino Banana Growers and Exporters Association (PBGEA) is thus urging the government to hasten the creation of a National Research Development Extension for Bananas or at least revive the Mindanao Banana Disease Task Force created half a decade ago but which quickly folded up for lack of funds. For such a body to just fold up that way when it is supposed to be the proactive arm of the country’s second largest agricultural export commodity (second to coconuts) gives a peek into how the agricultural sector ranks among the priorities of the National Government.

Now comes the dreaded Panama disease; more dreaded because it is affecting Cavendish bananas, a variety, an indication that the strain of the fungus that is eating up those banana plants can just as easily affect local varieties that small farmers tend to for the domestic market, including the plantains or cooking varieties (saba and cardava).


So far, only the PBGEA has raised the alarm, although the alarm is echoing loud and clear around the agricultural commodities world, with several mentions about this problem in Davao plantations in international websites but only a news report from two national news websites. The Department of Agriculture still has to react to any of these.

One thing is clear then, the banana growers, both monocrop plantation types and small farm domestic producers alike, are all on their own and we can only repeat what authorities on banana diseases are telling planters when faced with a probable outbreak of Panama disease: do not touch.

To be more specific, here are the tips given by the Department of Resources - Primary Industry of Australia, a country which is known for its meticulous concern over the health of its agricultural sector:

* Do not cut it down.

* Do not try to dig it up and cart it away.

Doing either or both will just spread the disease because the disease is spread by infected soil, plant parts, and even tools, and footwear used in infected soil and plants.

The sad part is, despite various agricultural advances, there is yet no cure for Panama disease, which can wipe out all banana varieties if left to spread. The infected soil too will remain infected even up to 30 years and will kill new bananas planted on it.

There is no other recourse but to isolate the affected land and there is no other temporary solution but to burn the whole land in the hope that the heat generated will be enough to kill the pathogens in the soil. The normal way of doing it is covering the land with rice hull to make the dried plants even more inflammable and generate more heat. But this is not always effective. The only recourse being to abandon the land.

There is great urgency then to contain whatever has been affected lest this spread further not just in monocrop plantations that will easily cripple a whole industry, but also local varieties and thus threaten diversity of varieties.

That today, World Food Day, should be timely for the agriculture sector to sit down and ponder over the sustainability of our agricultural production and exports.

Published in the Sun.Star Davao newspaper on October 14, 2011.


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