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Notorious banana disease infects farms

Government agriculture officials confirm the infestation of fusarium wilt fungi in banana plantations in Davao del Norte that cause a serious soil infection that kills banana plants.

Fusarium wilt (FW) caused by Fusarium oxysporum f. sp. cubense is reported as the most notorious of all plant diseases affecting banana. The soil-borne fungus attacks roots and cannot be controlled by fungicides.

Anticipating the disease could adversely affect its local economy, Sto. Tomas local officials brought to the attention of the provincial agriculturist’s office the report of small banana growers of the gradual and rapid wilting of banana plants since June this year.

The assistance of the Pilipino Banana Growers and Exporters Association, Inc. (PBGEA) was sought as government agriculturists admitted they have inadequate knowledge about the disease including strategies for its exclusion and containment to prevent its spread.

In a series of hearings conducted by the Sto. Tomas Sangguniang Bayan Committee on Agriculture, it was learned that FW, popularly known as Panama Disease (PD) in other banana-producing countries, can render the plantation or farm area unfit for banana cultivation for even up to 20 years unless the spores of the fungi that cling to the soil can be properly eliminated.

PBGEA scientists said that the fungus that affects Cavendish, lakatan and other varieties commonly grown in tropical countries was categorized as Race 4, the strain that has no concrete cure up to this time and can wipe out entire plantations and neighboring areas if control and containment is not properly managed. The disease is spread by infected planting materials and soil and can move in water flowing over infected areas. Hence, the need for quarantine and farm equipment hygiene is important.

Dr. Emily Fabregar, chairperson of PBGEA’s technical committee, said that “at present, there are no hard and fast rules on how to manage FW. Although PBGEA is now doing an experiment handled by the Fusarium Wilt Focus Group (FWFG), it hopes to develop an integrated disease management program for FW of Cavendish banana, but would take some time until the study could yield conclusive results.”

Fabregar strongly recommends that “after detection, eradication must soon follow and containment must be done to prevent the spread of the disease. Quarantine procedures must always be in place and should be reviewed regularly”.

“All banana growers, whether with or without contracts with big companies and cooperatives, must be educated about Panama Disease starting from identification, isolation, quarantine methods and procedures and proper eradication”, Fabregar added.

Meanwhile, Dr. Gina Escuadra of Dole-Stanfilco suggested to government agriculturists to strictly apply rice hull burning method in eradicating the infected cases. Burning should be done continuously to maintain the application of heat until it can kill the spores.

Escuadra also warned growers on the use of chemicals as this could aggravate the spread of the infection. She reported to the council her observations during her ocular inspection in the areas infected that some growers inject glyphosate plus chlorine solution that is not recommended as an eradication method, then left the plants dried-up. She also noticed abandoned farms putting at high risk the spread of the disease to adjacent plantations.

Tadeco’s Dr. Benny Corcolon suggested to government to determine the incidence level or the status of the affectation of growers without tie-up so that appropriate and cost-effective interventions can be applied. Corcolon said that burning is still the best method to be used and that the use of glyphosate would hasten rotting and subsequently the production of spores. Unprescribed use of chemicals may also cause the development of a more resistant strain of the fungus.

Meanwhile, Davao del Norte provincial agriculturist Dominador Encarnacion Jr. reported that a provincial technical working group was recently created to address the Panama Disease problem. However, Encarnacion emphasized the need for collaboration as he acknowledged the limited capability of government technicians in managing PD. He underscored the assistance of PBGEA-member companies whose scientists are experts on banana diseases.

Encarnancion stressed the need to urgently tackle the problem as more reports of infestation were gathered by his office from the towns of New Corella and Kapalong. The provincial agriculturist rallied for unified actions among all banana stakeholders to save the industry that serves as a major economic driver in Davao del Norte.

Norma Yamuyam, research and development chief of Marsman-Drysdale, added that even roadside and backyard banana plants showed symptoms of PD indicating the spread of the fungi that can be aggravated by flooding.

Councilor Julie Mantequilla, presiding officer of the hearing, informed the guests that the local council of Sto. Tomas had passed a resolution urging Congress for the immediate enactment of the bill authored by Speaker Feliciano Belmonte that calls for the establishment of a National Banana Research and Development Center (NBRDC). The bill that is aimed to, among others, develop technologies to enhance productivity and utilization of banana, as well as to develop varieties that are resistant to diseases. The banana research and development center is expected to help much small growers to sustain their participation in the industry.

Aside from the establishment of a research center, PBGEA sought the involvement and support of local government units and banana growers in urging the national government through the Department of Agriculture (DA) to re-activate or create the Mindanao Banana Disease Task Force that was once established in 2006 when Panama Disease started to attack banana plantations in Sarangani, Bukidnon and Davao Provinces. (dmam)

WRATH OF FUSARIUM OXYSPORUM TR4. Sans accurate scientific techniques and studies, this one-hectare banana plantation infested with fusarium wilt in Kinamayan, Sto. Tomas, has to be totally eradicated and quarantined to stop the spread of the disease. It would take years before the area can be replanted with banana. The area is owned by a contract grower.