Together we can save the world’s banana production
Bananas are facing their biggest threat for over half a century. The Tropical Race 4 (TR4) strain of the Fusarium Wilt fungus is spreading across banana cultivating regions, and time is running out for us to stop it.
It is not just bananas themselves that are in danger. Banana farmers rely on the fruit for their income, and in some parts of the world, populations derive more than one-sixth of their calorific intake from bananas – which means entire food chains could be in jeopardy.
We can stop this happening and overcome Fusarium TR4. But we need to act together and act now. Everyone in the global food industry can play a role in defeating the disease, whether by preventing its spread, investing in genetic development, or educating consumers. That is the purpose of the Global Alliance Against TR4: to encourage all stakeholders to get involved, help preserve a key source of nutrition and income for 400 million people, and stop the banana as we know it from being wiped out.
The R4T disease has been detected in 20 countries on most continents
400 million people depend on bananas for food and income
Potentially 17% of current production area to be affected by 2040
The importance of tackling TR4
What is TR4?
Tropical Race 4 (TR4) is a disease caused by the soil-borne Fusarium fungus. The fungus infects plants through the roots and causes a lethal wilt. It can spread into new areas, close or far, through movement of infected planting materials or through contaminated soil particles attached to items such as shoes, clothes, farm tools and vehicles, as well as in drainage and irrigation water. Control of the disease by fungicides is impossible. The only ways to protect bananas are to prevent the fungus from spreading, or to develop resistant varieties.
Even worse, isolating the infected area often means completely stopping production, meaning livelihoods are at risk as well as food security. When a banana plantation in Mozambique was shut down because of TR4, 273 plantation workers lost their jobs.
Why are bananas at risk?
95 per cent of commercial banana production is of the same variety: the Cavendish. Its appeal lies partly in that it is seedless – but this means that it can only be reproduced by cutting and replanting stems. Therefore, Cavendish banana plants are effectively clones of the same genetic material. So if one Cavendish plant is susceptible to a disease, they all are.
Although the Cavendish is not affected by strains TR1, 2 and 3, it is not resistant to TR4. In fact, there are no TR4-resistant varieties currently in commercial use worldwide.
What is the current situation with TR4?
The situation has been unfolding for a few decades. TR4 was first identified in the 1990s in south-east Asia. However, its spread has accelerated – it has become established in Africa, and in 2019 the first cases in South America were identified. This greatly increases the urgency with which we need to tackle TR4, since Central and South America are the world’s highest-volume banana-producing regions.
From observing TR4 in other countries, we already know how quickly it can spread. In India, the world’s largest producer of bananas (annual production of 27 million tons), the disease was first detected in 2015 and is now widespread in almost all banana-growing states, with disease severity as high as 80-90% in some areas.
What is at risk if we don’t beat the disease?
It’s possible that bananas as we know them could be completely eradicated. This affects far more than just what is on the supermarket shelf. For countless people in banana-producing regions, bananas are a key source of income and an important part of a nutritious diet. We cannot risk the health and welfare of millions of people – which is why we need to tackle TR4 now.
Is there any treatment for TR4?
At present, there is no viable treatment and it is exceedingly difficult to contain the infection within a plantation. The only way to ensure it is stopped is to burn the affected plants – and even then, you will still not be able to cultivate bananas on that ground, since the disease is likely to take hold again. Banana production is largely carried out by smallholder farmers, so this process will be hugely damaging to their lives and livelihoods.
What can we do to stop it?
We are confident we can defeat TR4 – but no single company governmental or non-governmental organization can do it alone. Collaboration between a wide-variety of food chain-related stakeholders will be crucial to achieving this. That’s what the Global Alliance aims to achieve: combining the technical expertise, global networks and resources of a broad range of food production stakeholders to mitigate TR4 in the short term and to research and develop breeding and genetic solutions for the medium-to-long term.
What is the Global Alliance doing right now?We are focusing our efforts on three main areas:
- Prevention and Training. Since TR4 is not easily visible, we need education programmes that focus on preventing the disease rather than noticing it once it is present. Training focuses on hygiene, disinfection and general information about the disease. We are exploring outreach models to allow us to reach every smallholder in a given region.
- Breeding and Genetics. Establishing breeding programmes to mass-produce new varieties of banana that are resistant to TR4. We have already had success cultivating a more resilient variety in laboratory conditions. Once a variety is properly established, we need to educate consumers to choose this variety.
- Methods of Control. Testing means of strengthening plants’ resistance and stemming the transmission of TR4. We are working on improving the efficacy of control agents, increasing our understanding of TR4’s epidemiology, and developing diagnostic tools to locate TR4 in soil.
Prevention and Training
Since TR4 is not easily visible, we need education programmes that focus on preventing the disease rather than noticing it once it is present. Training focuses on hygiene, disinfection and general information about the disease. We are exploring outreach models to allow us to reach every smallholder in a given region.Learn more
Breeding and Genetics
Establishing breeding programmes to mass-produce new varieties of banana that are resistant to TR4. We have already had success cultivating a more resilient variety in laboratory conditions. Once a variety is properly established, we need to educate consumers to choose this variety.Learn more
Methods of Control
Testing means of strengthening plants’ resistance and stemming the transmission of TR4. We are working on improving the efficacy of control agents, increasing our understanding of TR4’s epidemiology, and developing diagnostic tools to locate TR4 in soil.Learn more
Is it possible to get involved?
All members of the food chain and those interested in food security can get involved. Getting to the bottom of this problem cannot be done by any organization alone. It takes the contribution, commitment and expertise of business, government, non-profit and academia combined.
Banana fun facts
Did you know? Around 60% of human DNA is the same as that of a banana!
The inside of banana skins is sometimes used to polish shoes.
Bananas are the fifth most consumed food in the world.
Banana fibres are very useful. They can be used to purify water.
The world record for peeling and eating bananas is 8 bananas in one minute.
Did you know that the banana is scientifically a berry, whereas the strawberry is not?
TR4 Prevention Training to the Rescue!
It takes a trained eye to spot the symptoms of TR4. The new BayG.A.P. module is the perfect action plan to identify and stop the disease in its tracks!Learn more
Watch this space!
As the Alliance grows, we´ll post details of the members of our Steering Committee and the organizations they represent. Minutes of Steering Committee meetings will also be posted here, in line with our principles of transparency, inclusiveness and collaboration. Be sure to check back for further updates.