Aug 17, 2019 | Updated: 07:24 AM EDT

Banana Killing Fungus Reaches the Americas

Aug 12, 2019 01:13 PM EDT

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Originally discovered in soil samples in Taiwan in the 90s, and then later in 2013 in Africa and the Middle East, Panama disease Tropical Race 4-or TR4-has been positively identified in bananas in Colombia.

TR4 is an infection of the banana plant by the fungus Fusarium odoratissimum. While the fungus is not a direct threat to human health, it does pose a potentially disastrous problem. Banana plants that are infected with TR4 stop bearing fruit, and for a country like Colombia, it could be devastating.

Like most of Latin America, Colombia relies heavily on the cultivation of bananas, not only as a source of nutrition but also as a national commodity. Colombia houses four of the 5 leading exporters in the market. In fact, the discovery of the lethal fungus by the Colombian Agriculture and Livestock Authority-or ICA-prompted the declaration of a national state of emergency.

Although this isn't the first recorded strand of the TR virus, it is the most deadly. The first known strand, called Race 1, hit in the early 1900s and nearly wiped out all of the world's banana supply. One variety of banana, the Cavendish was found to be resistant to the strand and soon became the banana of choice for western markets. TR4 however, does not discriminate.

Unfortunately, unlike before, there is not a substitute banana that can bail out the industry. A banana similar to the Cavendish as far as aesthetics and taste, but with a resistance to TR4, simply does not exist.

However, scientists in Honduras have successfully created a banana that is resistant to the fungus and there are other readily available varieties, but they may not hold up well in the western market as the taste is not similar to what consumers are familiar with.

"I'm not saying we have a standby Cavendish to replace the current Cavendish, but there are other varieties with other colors, and other shapes, and other yields, which will survive TR4," says Rony Swennen, a professor at the University of Leuven who maintains the International Musa Germplasm Collection, a collection of more than 1,500 banana varieties. "The question is, will the industry accept it, and are the customers ready to change to another taste?"

If TR4 continues to spread and threaten banana yields in Latin America, western consumers may have very little choice when it comes to the banana selection they see at their local supermarkets.

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