Chiquita bananas at Carnival Fresh Market in Brooklyn, N.Y. ( Amy Sowder )

The TR4 strain of the Panama disease fungus, or fusarium wilt, is a menace to the widely grown cavendish banana variety. 
So far the TR4 (tropical race 4) has been found in southeast Asia, Australia and Mozambique, and banana suppliers are taking safeguards to prevent its spread to their acreage.

“Del Monte Fresh Produce, along with other banana industry stakeholders, are taking steps to avoid the spread of Panama disease in all our growing areas,” said Dennis Christou, vice president of marketing for Coral Gables, Fla.-based Del Monte Fresh Produce. 

“We feel confident the measures currently in place will help minimize risks to our banana operations.”

Bil Goldfield, director of corporate communications for Dole Food Co., Westlake Village, Calif., said the Panama disease — aka Fusarium Tropical Race 4 — is a soil fungal disease that affects the common cavendish variety of banana. The disease, Goldfield said, has most largely impacted the banana growing areas in the Philippines, Taiwan, Indonesia, Malaysia and China, but has also been detected in Jordan and Oman in the Middle East, in an isolated farm in northern Australia, and most recently in Mozambique, Africa. 

The disease, however, is not present in the Americas from where Dole imports cavendish bananas, Goldfield said.
“We certainly are aware of the potential danger to our supplies, and vigilant in efforts to contain the threat of the disease before any impact could occur,” he said. 

“Preventing the introduction in the Americas is paramount for the survival of the industry, thus we have worked together with other stakeholders in efforts to combat this problem, and raise awareness of its seriousness, especially among visitors.”

Goldfield said Dole and other research institutions around the world are looking at how to develop a disease resistant banana through crop improvement and plant breeding methods, and how to implement the use of possible safe and approved biological control measures.

Key crop 

Bananas are the world’s fourth most important food crop after rice, wheat and maize and are an essential and important food staple for millions, said Jamie Postell, director of sales for North America for Chiquita Brands, Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

“Chiquita aims to bring industry players together to address issues like the threat of the TR4 banana disease,” he said. 
With global trade and travel, TR4 is a disease that may cross boundaries. 

“Chiquita recognizes its duty and responsibility to take the lead and proactively work for the future of the banana industry together with all stakeholders,” he said. 

Chiquita’s sustainability program Behind the Blue Sticker is built on three main pillars. 

“The first two pillars focus on our core processes and neighborhood covering topics like wages, environment, gender and education,” he said. “The third pillar focuses on our responsibility within the industry (as) TR4 is a serious risk to the food security and livelihoods of millions of people.”

In 2018, Chiquita supported the International Congress of Plant Pathology in Boston to support the dialogue within the academic world around long-term sustainable solutions.

Unfortunately, Postell said there currently is no effective treatment, cure, or resistant banana varieties that can replace the cavendish or withstand the disease.

Still, Chiquita is focusing efforts on how the banana industry can adapt moving forward, and is working closely with experts in the field, like Professor Gert Kema of Wageningen University and Research in the Netherlands, along with other partners, to put together a substantial plant-breeding initiative to identify new disease-resistant bananas. 

“This project will span at least the next five years,” he said. 

“Chiquita is committed to encouraging and enabling innovation, research and ultimately supporting the industry in finding a permanent solution for the effective management of TR4 in order to ensure healthy banana production for many years to come.”