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Philippines: 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 undergoing an experimentation project called Fusarium Wilt Focus Group (FWFG) that hopes to develop an integrated disease management program for FW of Cavendish banana, it would take some time yet until the study could yield conclusive results.”

Fabregar strongly recommends that “after detection, exclusion and containment must be the first line of defense. 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 fungi. Burning should be done continuously to maintain the application of heat until it can hit the spores.

Escuadra also warned growers on the use of chemicals as this could aggravate the infection. She reported to the council her observations during her ocular inspection in the areas affected that some growers inject glyphosate plus chlorine solution that is not recommended as an eradication method. 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. Unsubscribed 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 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 emphasized 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.

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 that calls for the establishment of a National Banana Research and Development  Center (NBRDC) that

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