( File photo )

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has stepped forward to fight the spread of Tropical Race 4 (TR4) strain of fusarium wilt in Latin American and Caribbean banana-growing regions.

The UN group has started an emergency project under its Technical Cooperation Program to help countries in those regions fight the spread of the devastating fungal plant disease, according to a news release.

The Tropical Race 4 strain affects the production of many varieties of plantains and bananas, including cavendish, which the FAO said makes up about half of global banana production. While not harmful to human health, the disease can result in 100% yield loss, according to the release.

TR4 was recently detected for the first time in Colombia, where 430 acres of banana farms have now been put under quarantine by the Instituto Colombiano Agropecuario.

The release said nearby Ecuador is the world’s largest banana exporter, while Colombia, Costa Rica, and Guatemala are also major producers. Spread of the disease could result in crippling losses for farmers and their families, the FAO said.

Bananas have a huge role in providing food and household income in the region, Julio Berdegué, FAO assistant director-general and regional representative for Latin America and the Caribbean, said in the release. “In several countries, this crop has national economic importance, as it is a major export,” he said. “Together, we can curb the spread of this devastating disease, and protect livelihoods.”

The FAO emergency project will assist countries in developing regional and national action plans to fight the disease and monitor and contain outbreaks when they occur.

“National governments, like those of Ecuador and Colombia, are providing active and intelligent leadership, and we are solidly behind them,” Berdegué said in the release.

TR4 can be transmitted through movement of infested planting materials, contaminated soil, water or other physical means such as shoes, tools, and tires, according to the release. Once established, the pathogen can remain in the soil for decades, with no way to eradicate it completely.

“Countries must be vigilant in monitoring and containing any TR4 cases,” Hans Dreyer, director of FAO’s Plant Production and Protection Division, said in the release. “Only strict observation of phytosanitary measures can prevent the disease from spreading.”

The FAO said diversification, soil health and better use of available genetic resources are key to building resilience to the disease over the long term. 

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