Panama Disease: Fungal Pariah Of The Global Banana Industry

Fusarium oxysporum f.sp. cubense, the fungal culprit behind the Panama Banana Disease.

5. Effects of Panama Disease

The Panama Disease is a deadly banana plant disease cause by a special strain of the fungus species Fusarium oxysporum f.sp. cubense. The worst fact about this fusarium wilt disease is that it cannot be checked with the application of fungicides or other chemical treatments, leading to widespread loss of banana plants. The Panama disease was first identified in Queensland, Australia in 1876. During the mid-20th Century, the disease wiped out large populations of export quality Gros Michel bananas, leading to heavy losses incurred by countries engaged in trade in these bananas. Presently, the Cavendish banana populations are majorly affected by the Panama disease. The fact why the bananas are so highly susceptible to the fungus is that they are nearly genetically identical, thus allowing the pathogen to quickly adapt and spread to all the individuals, affecting them in the same lethal manner. The genetic similarity of these bananas to each other is the result of the asexual method of reproduction used for propagation of these seedless and pollen deprived banana cultivars. The fungus first infects the feeder roots and rhizome of the plant, triggering the release of chemicals by the plant that result in blockage of water and nutrient transport through the stems of the plant leading to wilting and loss of leaves.

4. Related Fusarium Wilts

Fusarium wilts are also caused by other strains of Fusarium oxysporum, affecting other plants like tomatoes (in the case of F. oxysporum f. sp. lycopersici), sweet potatoes (especially F. oxysporum f. sp. batatas), tobacco, and many types of herbaceous plants. The fungus is a soil pathogen that feeds on dead and decaying organic matter and spreads via water sources or via infected seeds or transplants.

3. Areas Most Vulnerable

During the late 19th Century, banana plantations in Central America were worst affected by the Panama disease which was reported in Gros Michel banana cultivars in Panama, hence the name of the disease. After heavy losses were incurred by these countries in terms of banana consumption and export, the scientists started developing a new type of banana, the Cavendish banana which was believed to be resistant to the Panama disease. The Cavendish bananas soon replaced the Gros Michel variety and became the new popular source of bananas worldwide. Soon, Malaysia started clearing vast tracts of rainforests to grow Cavendish bananas. However, after a few decades of successful growth, the Malaysia grown Cavendish bananas were witnessed dying from some unknown disease which was later identified as Panama disease. Currently, the disease has grasped banana plantations in Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines, Pakistan, Australia, and much Africa, with high chances of spreading to Latin America.

2. Influence on the Global Banana Market

The previous outbreak of the Panama disease in the Gros Michel cultivars led to a staggering loss of $2.3 billion worldwide. Presently, the Panama disease threatens to have a devastating impact on the global banana yield, affecting the lives of millions of people depending on these bananas for their consumption and livelihood. For example, over 100 million people in Africa depend on bananas as an important source of food and livelihood. The disease that is already raging across the African banana plantations thus threatens the well-being of all these people. A major banana-producing company in Mozambique, Matanuska, has already suffered an economic loss of $7.5 million USD because of this disease. The negative public perception of bananas grown in the Panama disease afflicted countries is also adversely affecting the export of bananas to other countries. Over 10,000 hectares of banana plantations have been lost in the countries of China, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines since 1992, and over $400 million dollars have been lost due to the recent outbreak of Panama disease.

1. Fighting Panama Disease

Currently, a massive volume of research is being conducted worldwide to try to develop a banana plant that is resistant to the Panama disease. Scientists are employing genetic engineering techniques to engineer organisms, often with transgenics, that are resistant to a wide variety of banana plant pathogens. It is also important that the bananas obtained from these plants be good to eat, have higher and quicker yields and longer shelf life for use as a commercial crop. However, as of yet, a super banana plant with all these qualities have not been developed. There is also a need for all the affected countries to co-ordinate their research and conservation efforts to try to check the spread of the Panama disease to the unaffected areas of the world. It is also important to grow a greater diversity of banana cultivars to maintain a healthy genetic variability in the banana populations.


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