While the world continues battling the novel coronavirus and COVID-19 pandemic, it’s all too easy to lose sight of the battles farmers fight on a daily basis against the many different pathogens that threaten their crops and by extension the global food supply.
But even as we are beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel with vaccines on the horizon for COVID-19, there is also a bright spot for banana growers everywhere—an effective weapon against the dreaded banana disease that has plagued farmers for decades: Fusarium wilt.
Fusarium Wilt: The Bane of Banana Farmers
Fusarium is a fungal pathogen that lives in the soil and its many variants have specialized to attack specific plants, including bananas, cucurbits, legumes, sweet potatoes, tobacco, and tomatoes, just to name a few. The telltale signs of fusarium infection include yellowed wilting leaves, leaf loss, plant stem deterioration, and finally the death of the entire plant.
The Fusarium problem has been an issue for farmers since the early 1900s, but it’s a really difficult problem to solve. Because it lives in the soil (especially moist soil with bad drainage) and can survive there as long as 30–40 years, working the land can result in spreading the pathogen to uninfected areas. It gets on a farmer’s footwear and their farming implements and is spread around that way.
The variant that attacks banana plants is found everywhere the fruit is grown, including Africa, Asia, Central America, and South America, including Colombia. Back in the 1950s, a bad outbreak diagnosed in Panama had people calling it “Panama Disease,” but it was Fusarium wilt. It wrecked the dominant banana variety of the time, which was the Gros Michel or “Big Mike” cultivar, nearly wiping out its commercial production altogether.
When Fusarium Mutates, Banana Growers Suffer
Throughout the decades, the only truly effective solution has been to develop varieties of bananas that are resistant to the disease. Unfortunately, like so many pathogens, Fusarium can mutate into new strains. The latest strain is called Fusarium TR4 (Tropical Race 4), and it’s spreading rapidly throughout plantations of the most popular variety of banana today—the Cavendish, which makes up half of all the bananas grown around the world.
Without effective control, fusarium wilt can wreak havoc on a country’s banana industry. There has been an especially severe outbreak of fusarium wilt in the Philippines, which has seen its banana exports fall “from $1.158 billion to $1.034 billion or a 10 percent decline in the first seven months of 2020 compared to the same time frame in 2019.”
In Colombia, the fungus began appearing in plantations and spreading so rapidly that a national state of emergency was declared in August 2019. Hundreds of hectares of banana plantation land were quarantined and burned, to no avail. Colombia is the fourth-largest exporter of bananas in Latin America, and the coastal regions supply international markets with thousands of tons per year.
Colombia, with the help of its Ministry of Agriculture and other government organizations, have managed to achieve 100% control of the wilt, ending this existential threat to the county’s banana industry. Colombia’s government has placed an increased focus on the agriculture, resulting in an export boom that extends far beyond bananas. As this effort continues, Colombia’s ag sector will grow exponentially.
Ending the Banana Fusarium Wilt Pandemic
Just when things were beginning to look really bleak for banana growers in Colombia and around the world, hope is on the horizon. Canadian agriculture biotech company MustGrow Biologics Corp. (CSE: MGRO), is offering up a weapon that appears to be highly effective against banana Fusarium wilt.
MustGrow has developed what it calls an organic biopesticide that can be used in the battle against a wide range of pathogens, acting as a pesticide, fumigant, fertilizer, nematocide, and fungicide. It’s the fungicide application that is especially important to Colombia’s banana growers. Canada, as it turns out, grows nearly a third of the world’s mustard crops, and seeds from the Brassica genus of plants in the mustard family are super-charged with all kinds of natural defense mechanisms that can be concentrated for agricultural application.
In MustGrow’s initial testing of its organic biopesticide on banana plants, the results were astounding: 100% disease control. While additional testing is needed for efficacy in the field, this is very good news for the banana industry in Colombia and around the world.