The future of the banana is at stake. What can we do about it?

Bananas. As foods go, we might think of them as quite common and unremarkable. After all, they are everywhere, right? It is hard to imagine walking into a supermarket or greengrocer without seeing them.

What if we told you that, unless we act now, that might not be the case in the future? That bananas might be gone – not just from supermarket shelves but from most of the world? And that this threat affects not just the selection of fruits we can buy, but the health and livelihoods of 400 million people worldwide?

Bananas are a big deal

Global production of bananas is around 115 million tonnes a year. Bananas only grow in certain parts of the world: production is focused on southern and eastern Asia, Latin America, and Africa. The greatest volume-producing countries are India and China; the biggest exporters are Ecuador and the Philippines.

Bananas are in high demand globally, and in the USA, more bananas are eaten than any other fruit. But in areas of high banana production, they are even more important: they account for as much as one-sixth of people’s calorie intake.

TR4: a growing threat

Banana plantations all over the world are under threat from Tropical Race 4 (TR4), a strain of the Fusarium fungus that causes wilting and eventually death in banana plants. TR4 was first observed in Asia in the 1990s, but its expansion is accelerating. It reached Africa by 2014, and has begun to spread in South America: it was identified in Colombia in 2019, in Peru in 2021, and there is speculation that it passed through Ecuador between these two outbreaks.

Once an outbreak of TR4 starts, it is virtually impossible to stop. It cannot be treated with fungicides, and spreads quickly through soil, water, farm tools, vehicles or clothing. And its spores can remain dormant on host plants or in soil for decades. If it gets established on a plantation, there is little alternative but to stop production, isolate the area, and destroy the plants – after which the land will be unsuitable for growing crops, potentially for many years.

That’s why TR4 is so dangerous. Many smallholder farmers rely on banana production for income, and many local populations rely on bananas as a staple. If TR4 is allowed to spread, it could be devastating for their yields, their farms, and their ability to provide for their families and communities.

All bananas of the Cavendish variety – around 95% of commercially produced bananas worldwide – are susceptible to TR4. We are in a battle to save the banana we know it, and all the people it supports.

The solution starts with education

What can we do to limit the spread of TR4? To safeguard farmers and fields, as well as the supply of bananas to our supermarket shelves?

The solutions are complex, but there is a crucial first step we can help everyone take: raising awareness. Growers can guard against TR4 outbreaks if they are aware of the threat the disease poses, can spot the early signs, and know the good practices that stop it spreading – such as installing the right equipment and following biosecurity procedures to control the movement of materials around the farm.

That’s why the BayG.A.P. Service Program now has a specific training module on TR4, covering the impact of the disease, how it spreads, and preventive measures to take against it. With this training, farmers can adopt the right practices that safeguard them against TR4.

If you are a Spanish speaker, you can log on to the TR4 training portal, see the modules for yourself, and learn more about this disease.

“The modules for TR4 were very practical and focused on our crops and real experiences. All the information we got was very useful. We have created standards and protocols for preventing the spread of TR4, we have trained our farm workers, and now we are sharing it with our neighbors too.”

Jorge Alex Serrano, APACSA

Spreading the word, one person at a time

Of course, designing training content is not enough on its own. We also need to get as many people as possible involved in the training, through public outreach and awareness initiatives. Smallholder farmers can be difficult to reach – especially during the COVID pandemic, when in-person visits were restricted for long periods.

To help overcome this challenge, we launched a number of campaigns that worked in a remote setting, including:

  • Providing the Peruvian government with tools such as the BayG.A.P. content and other educational awareness-building materials. The government was able to target these in banana-producing areas close to the outbreak.
  • Partnering with Rabobank and its local partner Banco Pichincha, which made training available to its grower customers.
  • Launching a text message and radio advertising campaign in Ecuador, designed to reach growers as well as consumers.
  • Running online seminars aimed at small producers, giving practical and accessible information on TR4 prevention in three one-hour blocks. Through our Ecuadorean partners, the reach of these seminars was massively amplified with 21,158 participants being reached who viewed 100% of the trainings.

More and more stakeholders are launching their own initiatives to spread the word about TR4. In Ecuador, we were inspired by a public campaign led by Agro Bayer Ecuador named “Saving the banana depends on you, depends on everyone.” It reminds us that we can all play a role in protecting our supply of bananas.

“Hardest hit by TR4 are smallholder farmers who grow local varieties infected by this disease. Since TR4 is not easily visible, awareness and education are key to prevent this silent pandemic to spread. These activities are part of our global outreach program to train smallholders all over the world.”

Gerhard Adam, BayG.A.P. Service Program lead

Remember: if we wait until TR4 has already broken out, it’s too late to educate about it. We need to increase knowledge and awareness now if we want to save the banana. By linking up at every stage – from farmer to consumer – we can make the greatest possible difference!

Want to know more? Look out for our next article, where we will share details about country-specific efforts to fight TR4.

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