U.S. banana importers seemed concerned but not panicked after it was reported that Fusarisum wilt tropical race 4 — commonly referred to as TR4 or Panama disease — was detected in Colombia in August.
Although the disease has been detected in Africa, Southeast Asia and other areas, this was the first time it showed up in South America, where a large portion of bananas destined for the U.S. are grown.
“The significance of finding TR4 in Colombia is that it has finally reached Latin America,” said Gerrit Kema, professor and researcher at the Wageningen University in the Netherlands.
“This could be the source of further dissemination across the entire Latin American banana belt,” he said.
But while some believe it’s only a matter of time before the disease spreads to other growing areas, shippers don’t anticipate an immediate threat to U.S. banana supplies.
“Chiquita can assure consumers that its top-quality bananas will continue to be available on store shelves,” said Jamie Postell, director of sales for North America for Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based Chiquita Brands.
“Preventive measures are necessary to protect existing production and will require a higher level of professionalization in the fields, which could lead to a future change for the banana industry,” he said.
Mayra Velazquez de León, president and CEO of San Diego-based Organics Unlimited Inc., said she believes that the industry ultimately will overcome the challenge of Panama disease.
Vigilance is key to combating banana diseases, she said, adding that the company constantly reviews its organic farming practices.
“Four generations of organic banana growing (have) provided extensive feedback in how we properly protect our crops from disease,” she said.
Small farms can be particularly vulnerable to diseases because prevention is “extremely resource-intensive,” said Angelica Hicks, banana category lead for West Bridgewater,
Mass.-based Oke USA Fruit Co., which markets Equal Exchange Produce.
She shared some advice for the U.S. produce industry from Julio Oscar Gallegos Herrera-Rambla, administrative manager of Peruvian banana cooperative CEPIBO.
He cited the need for sanitation checkpoints entering and exiting farms, special boots and clothing for on-farm use, complex education for all farmers and workers, barriers surrounding farms and specialist consulting.
Hicks said he suggested that costs be spread across the supply chain “so the responsibility doesn’t fall solely on the most marginalized players.”
Cavendish bananas are particularly vulnerable to disease, said Jonathan Kitchens, fruit buyer for Earl’s Organic Produce, San Francisco.
“Since there is only one variety — cavendish, that’s essentially cloned from another cavendish — it is wildly susceptible to all disease,” he said.
“We’re dealing with a monocrop here.”
Finding a new banana that is as versatile, packable, nutritious and high-yielding as the cavendish will be a challenge, but all the major breeders are working on it, he said.
Meanwhile, “All the governments and all the growers are really diligent about preventing its spread,” he said.