THE Pilipino Banana Growers and Exporters Association (PBGEA) called for the establishment of a banana research institute that will help the industry come up with solutions for the prevention and management of banana pests and diseases.
Stephen Antig, PBGEA executive director, said this is an urgent need to sustain the competitiveness of Philippine bananas in the world market amidst the threat of Fusarium Wilt, otherwise known as Panama Disease.
“The Philippine banana industry, backed up by scientific studies, is apprehensive that the industry will deteriorate if it does not get the proper government support,” Antig said.
A new strain of the Panama disease known as Tropical Race 4 (TR4) is a very serious disease in Cavendish banana plantations, scientists warned. It is a virulent disease that, when farms are infested, the pathogens cannot be removed anymore. However, while it is a serious disease, it can be managed and cannot totally destroy the industry, scientists claim.
Agustin Molina, a Filipino scientist who leads Bioversity International’s banana research efforts in the Asia Pacific region, stressed that as in the Sigatoka disease, if the Philippines does not do anything to control the disease, it cannot export any bananas.
“If they will not do aerial spray to control Sigatoka, we cannot export. Our bananas will not be accepted in the market. It is also done in Latin America, that’s also how they manage Sigatoka, through aerial spraying,” Molina said.
Molina, who is internationally recognized for his significant contributions in banana research and development with emphasis on the dreaded Fusarium Wilt and Banana Bunchy Top Disease, said that management of Fusarium Wilt is actually prevention and that growers should prevent the spread of the disease in the plantations.
“The solution is to prevent its spread by quarantine. The disease does not spread rapidly but it moves in the soil, it moves in the water, unlike Sigatoka, which is airborne,” he added.
PBGEA hopes the bill establishing the banana research institute will be re-filed in Congress under the incoming administration.
Antig said the industry is requesting President-elect Rodrigo Duterte to include the banana industry as one of the priority sectors in the Philippine Export Development Plan, 2015-2017 in which it was excluded.
“We are hoping that a banana research institute be established to develop disease-resistant varieties of bananas,” he said.
The research institute was proposed during the time of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and also pushed during President Benigno Aquino’s term. However, Antig said that it seems the bill was overlooked as it was not considered a priority bill.
At present, efforts to manage and prevent the spread of the disease all come from the private sector. Dr. Maria Emilia Rita Fabregar, technical committee chair of PBGEA, said they have established a three-hectare experimental site to determine the resilience of new banana varieties against TR4.
Fabregar said the experiment revealed that Gran Naine, which is the current variety of Cavendish being exported, is highly susceptible to TR4 while two varieties of Giant Cavendish Tissue Culture Variety were both resistant.
“Although it will take some time, the creation of a research institute will ensure the survival of the industry,” she added.
Panama disease infects the roots of bananas. It is a type of fusarium wilt, caused by the fungal pathogen Fusarium oxysporum. The pathogen is resistant to fungicides and cannot be controlled chemically.
During the 1950s, Panama disease wiped out the Gros Michel banana variety everywhere except in Asia. The banana industry was in a serious crisis, so a new banana thought to be immune to Panama disease was found and adopted, the Cavendish. In a few years, the devastated plantations resumed business as usual until a new strain, TR4, infested plantations in Asia.
TR4 currently threatens the production of today’s most popular cultivar, Cavendish.
Another threat to the viability of the industry is insurgency and banana growers are banking on Duterte to keep his promise to make peace and order his priority so that investors will continue doing business in the Philippines.
“The peace talks to be initiated with the communists and New People’s Army (NPA) will be a good start,” Antig said.
The NPA has been attacking banana plantations and other businesses in Mindanao when they do not get the revolutionary taxes that they extort. Most countryside industries are located near rebel bases and are therefore vulnerable to NPA attacks.
If the turbulent situation in Mindanao continues, industries might start packing up and transfer to other provinces and cities or even to neighboring Asean countries, which are eyeing the Philippines’ export markets.