• Deadly fungus killing bananas: What is Panama disease Tropical Race 4?

    By: Fiza Pirani, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

    Updated:

    The Colombian government has confirmed that a deadly fungus threatening banana plantations in the Eastern Hemisphere has officially arrived in the Americas, prompting a declaration of a national state of emergency. Latin America is the hub of the global banana export industry, according to National Geographic.

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    Officials with ICA, the Colombian agriculture and livestock authority, reported lab tests identified the presence of Panama disease Tropical Race 4 (or TR4), a form of Fusarium wilt caused by Fusarium oxysporum. This fungus, which was first identified in 1990s Taiwan, is known to infect the roots of banana plants and ultimately kill them. Once a banana plant plot is infected, the fruit can no longer be cultivated there.

    According to experts with the International Society for Horticultural Science and ProMusa, this soil-dwelling fungus strain can't be controlled with fungicides, nor can it be eradicated using fumigants.

    "As far as I know, ICA and the farms are doing a good job in terms of containment, but eradication is almost impossible," Colombian phytopathologist Fernando García-Bastidas told NatGeo.

    Are bananas especially prone to disease?

    Bananas are among the most important food crops in the developing world, and millions depend on good banana harvests for a living. 

    Unfortunately, according to National Geographic, commercial banana plantations usually exclusively grow one clonal variety of banana, the Cavendish. That's a problem because the plants have nearly identical genetics, meaning they're also identically susceptible to disease. 

    "The practice of growing crops with limited genetic diversity—technically called monoculture—aids in cheap and efficient commercial agriculture and marketing, but it leaves food systems dangerously vulnerable to disease epidemics," according to the magazine.

    But it's not just the Cavendish variety at stake. 

    "Tropical Race 4 is capable of killing at least 80%—though possibly as much as 85%—of the 145 million tonnes (160 million tons) of bananas and plantains produced each year," Randy Ploetz, professor of plant pathology at University of Florida, said in an interview with Quartz. In 1989, Ploetz became the first to discover TR4.

    Read more about the deadly fungus, its repercussions on the banana industry and which economies are especially at risk, at nationalgeographic.com.

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