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Decision and Policy Analysis Research Area – DAPA

Banana industry predicted to disappear

Is what The Guardian and TheScientist said some time ago, considering various facts, within which the most important relied on the genetic uniformity of the vast production areas in the major producing countries, who mostly grow AAA Cavendish dessert type bananas and an upcoming threat named Fusarium wilt Tropical Race 4 (a.k.a TR4). If their predictions turn right, in a little less than one year’s time the banana industry will be completely gone. Oh, no!

Banana plants affected by a cyclone

But the industry is now much larger, more robust and holds much more knowledge than 10 years back“, said Agustin Molina, a Bioversity-Asia scientist in the Fourth International Banana Congress, held during this week in San Jose, Costa Rica. Gus really believes there is no such risk of bananas totally disappearing from the global market. Rather, we need to work towards sustainable global solutions that benefit the farmers and raise awareness on the key current scientific concerns, amongst which TR4 is probably the most important. The more things you know, the more you need to know, I say.

Apart from the Fusarium crisis that wiped out all the Gros Michel banana plantations back in the 1950s, in a nutshell, the banana industry has suffered from the problem of the lack of diversity in the cropped cultivars and the consequent difficulty in combating diseases. All banana varieties that are grown commercially at present are genetically identical, and this poses a risk to cultivation: if an infectious disease (such as TR4, for instance) arrives to a plantation, that’s all. Black leaf streak (or black Sigatoka), moko, bacterial wilt, banana bunchy top disease, various nematode species, are amongst the threats that the industry has to face, and that cause large amounts of (environmentally harmful) pesticides/fungicides to be used constantly in banana plantations, thus increasing production costs.

Let me add up climate change to the above mix. In my presentation at the banana conference, organized by CORBANA, I showcased our CIAT-DAPA and CCAFS results related to climate change and Musa crops. There are some good news, some bad news and a lot of unknowns. Costa Rican bananas are not expected to be negatively impacted; indeed, they’re expected to increase their climatic suitability potential, whilst at the same time decreasing black leaf streak disease pressure. Opposite responses were found for most African countries (see more details in my presentation, below).

Working towards an adapted Musa cropping system is thus needed. As stressed in our Addis Ababa breeding workshop, we need to “Develop more robust Musa systems by widening the genetic base“. Here are some tips on how to get there, we need to:
  1. develop and use powerful, robust and rigorous modelling tools to be able to produce more robust predictions of yield (and hence economic) impacts of climate change
  2. develop, enhance and implement site-specific agriculture. For instance, seasonal disease and yield forecasting could be more widely used and interpreted by farmers to make decisions at the field scale.
  3. look for sites that currently hold the climates that our study areas could experience towards the future. By looking at climate analogues we can realise what adaptation strategies we could transfer from one site to the other to mitigate negative effects.
  4. share data and results, and keep updated from recent developments. Three examples: (1) The Global Agricultural Trial Repository to share experimental data, useful for crop model calibration and for analogue site analyses; (2) the Adaptation and Mitigation Knowledge Network, as a platform to compile, cross-check, relate and analyse all information related to climate change adaptation; and (3) Plantwise, a platform that harbors pest and disease data, quite critical for a crop very affected by diseases, I would say.
  5. deliver information to other scientists, farmers, policy makers and other stakeholders

And finally, constantly and while doing all the above, we need to breed a banana crop using a wider genetic base with resistance to black leaf streak, resistance to TR4 and other fusarium wilt races, resistance to banana bunchy top virus, resistance to bacterial wilt, drought tolerance and improved agronomic characteristics (dwarf for typhoon-prone areas, better fruit quality, among others).


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