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While posing no short-term risk to U.S. supplies, a potentially devastating banana disease has been discovered for the first time in Latin America plantations. 

Plant health officials in Colombia have declared a national emergency after finding Fusarium wilt tropical race 4 (TR4) in La Guajira.

Banana exports will continue, as it can take two to four years before the plants exhibit symptoms, and the quality and nutrition of the fruit isn’t affected.

The banana industry will segregate the handling of containers and vehicles that transport bananas in areas where the disease has been detected, according to the Colombian Agricultural Institute.

According to the research website www.fusariumwilt.org, the economic damage of the first Panama epidemic in the 1950s was estimated at $2.3 billion. That strain wiped out Gros Michel banana plantations. Growers replaced the Gros Michel banana with the cavendish banana, which was naturally resistant to the fungus.

In 1992, the new TR4 strain was discovered in Southeast Asia. Since then, the website said, cavendish plantations have been wiped out in China, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. 

The damage caused by this second outbreak has already surpassed the $400 million mark, according to the website.

Colombia, with more than $100 million in banana shipments to the U.S. in 2018, was the sixth-largest supplier of fresh bananas, trailing Guatemala ($851 million), Costa Rica ($399 million), Honduras ($218 million), Ecuador ($189 million) and Mexico ($136 million).

About 430 acres were discovered with TR4, and nearly 400 acres of bananas from that area have been destroyed, Colombian officials said. No signs of the disease have been seen in other parts of the country, according to the group.

The fungus is spread through infected planting material, infested soil and water, scientists say — not the fruit itself.

Supply squeeze?

In comments during a second-quarter earnings call July 30 — before official confirmation of the disease in Colombia on Aug. 8 — Mohammad Abu-Ghazaleh, chairman and CEO of Fresh Del Monte Produce, said the fungus could have a dramatic effect on the banana industry.

Because the disease can take so long to express itself in banana plants, it is possible that TR4 could have already spread to other Latin American growing regions. 

While banana-producing countries and banana companies are taking measures to safeguard the production of bananas from the disease, Abu-Ghazaleh said the disease could spread widely.

“I believe that what is happening, seeing it (in) different countries around the world that have this disease, that you need to coexist with it,” he said. 

However, small and medium-sized growers that don’t have the means and tools to be able to cope with the disease could be ruined.

“I’m not saying tomorrow or next year, but in five or 10 years from now, there might be a drastic reduction in banana supply from Central America, which will translate into much higher prices,” Abu-Ghazaleh said in the quarterly conference call.

Banana researcher Gerrit (Gert) Kema, professor and researcher at the Wageningen University in the Netherlands, said the discovery of the disease in Colombia threatens the continued cultivation of the cavendish banana variety around the world.

“I think it’s very bad news, because it really underscores how difficult it is to contain that disease,” he said, noting the fungus has spread from Taiwan in the 1990s through Asia, reached Africa and now Latin America — appearing for the first time in a region the U.S. sources bananas from.

He said the discovery of TR4 in Colombia will add to the urgency to find other banana cultivars that could resist the disease. 

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