Over the last few weeks, the possible disappearance of the Cavendish banana has been making headlines around the globe, both in producer and consumer countries; since the first outbreak of the Fusarium Tropical Race 4 has been made public in Colombia. This new situation raises huge concerns among producers and industry stakeholders worldwide, threatening the livelihoods of millions of producers and workers. In addition, it poses a threat to the sustainability of the global banana industry, which is heavily dependent on banana supplies from Latin America and the Caribbean.
The stakes are high and demand a prompt response and support from all stakeholders: producers, governments, research, traders, retailers and international organizations. Major efforts must be put on containment and prevention, to avoid the spread of the disease to other producer countries.
With nearly 92% of Fairtrade bananas coming from Latin America and the Caribbean, and over 200 certified organizations across the region, Fairtrade is committed to support producers in tackling this threat. The Latin American and Caribbean Network of Fair Trade Small Producers and Workers (CLAC) and Fairtrade International have been working on it over the last few years and are determined to step up efforts on prevention, protection and risk mitigation.
What is Fusarium TR4?
- Fusarium Tropical Race 4 (TR4) is a soil-borne disease caused by the fungus Fusarium oxysporum f. sp. cubense (Foc) Tropical Race 4, which affects the roots of banana trees and blocks the supply of water and nutrients, leading to the death of the plant.
- In the 1960s Fusarium TR1 caused the destruction of Gros Michel bananas, which was then the main commercial variety cultivated and traded worldwide. It had then been replaced by the Cavendish banana, which was resistant to TR1.
- A new strain of the fungus appeared in Asia in the 1990s, the TR4, which is lethal to Cavendish bananas as well as other varieties. It is estimated that about 80% of bananas cultivated worldwide may be affected by TR4, which poses considerable threats not only to the banana industry but also to the food security of populations in many producer countries.
- The disease can spread easily to other plantations via soil particles, contaminated tools, shoes, clothes, vehicles, animals, water or planting materials.
- Spores of the fungus can remain alive in the soil over decades and there is no way to destroy it or control it efficiently. Besides, no other banana variety immune to TR4 is currently available to replace the Cavendish on a commercial scale.
- So far, Fusarium TR4 outbreaks have been reported in several Asian countries (Taiwan, China, Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and India), as well as a few African and Middle Eastern countries (Mozambique, Israel, Jordan, Oman), in addition to Australia. But, Latin America and the Caribbean, where the biggest share of banana production is concentrated, had previously been spared by the disease.
- In April this year, the alarm has been raised in Colombia when they discovered suspect cases on two farms in La Guajira region. It had not been officially confirmed at that time though, because thorough laboratory analyses were needed to confirm if it was TR4 or another disease. The presence of TR4 was officially confirmed in August 2019. The Colombian Agricultural Institute (ICA) quarantined infested farms and eradicated over 150 hectares. Other farms in the regions are also under scrutiny to detect other potential cases.
- Colombian authorities have implemented strong biosecurity protocols and thorough prevention measures with systematic phytosanitary controls at all entry points in La Guajira and Magdalena regions. In the region of Uraba, in the greatest area of banana production in Colombia, authorities and producers have also intensified biosecurity protocols and controls.
Risks for Banana Producers
Overall, Fusarium TR4 poses a huge threat to producers, first in Colombia but also in other countries across Latin America and the Caribbean given there is no efficient solution to stop it, unlike other pests and diseases commonly affecting banana production. In addition, there is no other alternative variety available for the time being.
- At this point, the outbreak of Fusarium TR4 has been confirmed in only two estates in La Guajira. However, this does not mean that other cases won’t appear in the coming weeks or months. The whole region, as well as neighboring Magdalena, are under strict surveillance, to allow for early detection of new cases and trigger appropriate reaction.
- Should Fusarium TR4 expand more widely to other producers and other countries, it could lead to the end of large-scale banana production and cause unpredictable losses for producers, workers, companies and local economies, which dramatically rely on banana production.
Risks for Fairtrade Supply Chains
- One of the two farms that has been quarantined is Fairtrade certified (Bananera Don Marce, 18217). At this point, no other Fairtrade producer seems to be affected by the fungus and all-in-all, no disruption or shortage is expected in Fairtrade banana supply chains in the coming months.
- However, producer organizations and plantations are under surveillance, especially in the region of Madgalena, which is close to La Guajira. Those producers are extremely concerned about a possible spread of the disease to their region.
- In Colombia and in other countries like Ecuador, Panama, Peru and the Dominican Republic, producers take the threat of contagion very seriously. They are continuously working on the implementation of prevention measures at farm level, such as fencing the farms and enforcing control and disinfection systems at entry points. These include initiatives such as foot-bathes and spraying of vehicles.
- The implementation of prevention and protection measures represents a significant amount of additional costs for producers. For some, these costs become unsustainable, especially for small-holders, who have limited investment capacity. It is estimated that prevention measures could end up increasing the cost of production by $0.12-0.15 (USD) per box.
WHAT HAS BEEN DONE SO FAR TO TACKLE FUSARIUM TR4?
At Institutional Level
- All producer countries were aware that TR4 could reach the continent sooner or later, and many had already started implementing prevention measures at different levels. But, since, the first outbreak has been reported in Colombia, producer countries like Ecuador, Panama, Costa Rica, Peru and the Dominican Republic have taken further action, implementing drastic measures to prevent contamination, including controls in harbors, airports, roads, and disinfection of vehicles and containers. They’re also conducting studies in producing regions to detect possible cases of TR4, in addition to training people on the ground to detect and report those cases.
- Governments, technical bodies and international organizations are also collaborating to implement a common approach and find solutions to tackle the disease.
What has CLAC been doing?
- CLAC has been taking the threat of Fusarium TR4 very seriously long before the recent outbreak in Colombia. Indeed, for the last three years, CLAC has been working actively on TR4 prevention with its Banana Network.
- A campaign has been created and implemented to raise awareness among producers on TR4 and how to prevent it from spreading. Educational materials have been distributed to producer organizations and CLAC staff has been including the topic of TR4 prevention in all workshops and field activities with producers in different countries. Now that the threat is severe, CLAC will be organizing more workshops with producers and actively supporting them in implementing strong biosecurity protocols.
- CLAC has also been participating actively in the Fusarium Working Group, as part of the World Banana Forum, to coordinate actions with other members. As well, CLAC has participated on the expert panel of the Global GAP TR4 Biosecurity Add-On. Trainings and simulations on the Global GAP Add-On have been conducted in Costa Rica, Panama, Dominican Republic and Peru.
- Apart from raising awareness and capacity-building among producers on the prevention side, CLAC has been strongly advocating in favor of soil health programs as a response to pests and diseases affecting banana production.
- For the last four years, CLAC has been implementing the Productivity Improvement Program (PIP) with banana organizations across Latin America and the Caribbean. This program consists of recovering soil health and fertility by incorporating microorganisms and organic matter into the soil, which has proved to be very successful. It has contributed to a significant increase in productivity of banana farms, as well as a reduction of costs of production and environmental externalities such as water use and carbon footprint.
- On top of that, the incorporation of beneficial microorganisms has proved to be a very efficient way to control and reduce all types of pathogens in the soil. Although it requires further research to determine if soil health programs such as PIP could efficiently control Fusarium TR4, recent studies have provided us with valuable insight and grounds for hope.
- Overall, Fusarium TR4 poses major risks for banana production and the first outbreak in Colombia comes as an abrupt “wake-up call”. It requires a strong reaction from the entire supply chain and banana industry. However, all stakeholders must behave responsibly, avoiding panic and disorder.
- Looking at the short term, the priority goes to implementing preventive measures across the continent to avoid further propagation of the disease. Fairtrade members, alongside commercial and institutional partners, must join forces to support producers in capacity-building and prevention measures at farm level. It is also important that the banana industry recognizes the efforts made by producers as it will initially translate into higher costs of production. On their end, Fairtrade producer organizations also have the capacity to mobilize resources such as the Fairtrade Premium to invest in prevention and as well in the implementation and scaling up of soil health programs.
- On the other hand, the TR4 threat also represents an opportunity for the sector to organize and innovate in order to transition to more sustainable production patterns and achieve a positive transformation of banana production in the long term. This transition requires further research and experiments, and Fairtrade producers should have a leadership role in the process.
TESTIMONIES FROM PRODUCERS
Henry Medardo Fernandez Guerrero
Fincas del Oro, Ecuador
For us, as small-scale producers, Fusarium TR4 represents the threat of losing our crops. However, being organized in association makes us stronger, and able to implement prevention measures in wider areas. We are currently working extensively on capacity-building with our members and workers to be able to identify and prevent the disease in good time. We also aim to set new priorities in our Fairtrade Development Plan to focus on prevention as well as diversification.
Also, since 2015 we’ve being working on soil health management with the PIP Project, applying bio-ferments which will help us to mitigate the effects of Fusarium TR4 at low cost. As an organization, we need to keep strengthening our approach and invest more resources to scale up these kinds of initiatives.
Arnaldo PAREJO TORRES
Due to the high risk of Fusarium TR4, small-scale producer organizations in Colombia have been implementing basic prevention protocols, to prevent the spread of the disease to our farms. These include intensive capacity-building programs, with the support of professional organizations (such as AUGURA and ASBAMA) as well as the Colombian Agricultural Institute. We’ve also started implementing simple disinfection systems at the entries and exits of farms, in addition to fencing them. However, more efforts are still needed to implement biosecurity areas in all sectors with gates and systems for the disinfection of vehicles. In that sense, each producer organization will invest funds from the Fairtrade Premium to strengthen their infrastructures and ensure adequate protection. Finally, we will continue to raise awareness on the importance of improving soil health through the application of bio-ferments.