Bush Matters Op-Ed – “Bananas on a slippery slope”

20 March 2015

To understand the real threat the recent outbreak of Panama disease poses to Queensland’s banana crop, you have to understand the alarming impact the different strains of soil fungus diseases in the history of global banana consumption.

For most people around the world born prior to the Second World War, the Gros Michel or “big ben” banana was the most likely variety to be on the shelves at the local greengrocer or supermarket.

This was a period of time when growers and retailers were only just beginning to realise the true economic potential of the fruit.

In the early years of the 20th century, the banana had gradually overtaken the apple as the most popular fruit in the world.

It is easy to see why when you consider that in the United States in 1913, twenty-five cents bought a dozen bananas, but only two apples.

Yet even as bananas became the fruit of choice, the biosecurity threat of Panama disease was already causing havoc through Latin America and across the Caribbean.

As the disease spread further with each passing year, the major banana growing regions struggled to harvest a viable crop of Gros Michel bananas and supplies spiralled downwards.

In fact, the disappearance of the popular fruit from supermarket shelves due to Panama disease even made a cultural impact, with the Broadway song, “Yes! We have no bananas” said to be inspired by a New York greengrocer’s spruiking during another stock shortage.

But Panama disease – named after the nation it is thought to have originated –would have the last laugh on the Gros Michel variety, which were all but extinct by the 1950s.

In response, the industry rushed to replace Gros Michel plants with the Cavendish variety, which was thought to be resistant to the soil fungus strain that wiped out Gros Michel.

Cavendish has been the staple banana variety in Australia and around the world ever since.

The global destruction that all but wiped out the Gros Michel variety had only minimal impact in Australia because the industry only existed in isolated pockets until the 1960s.

However, there is much at stake for Australia following this latest outbreak.

Our banana industry has developed into a sophisticated and profitable trade where about 28 million cartons of bananas (equal to about 372,000 tonnes) are sold in Australia.

It is worth $600 million directly, and more than $1 billion indirectly, to the national economy.

About 95 per cent of growers work in North Queensland.

For many years the Cavendish variety has soared in popularity (it represents more than 80 per cent of Australian grown banana), which allowed industry confidence to recover.

But now we find ourselves on the cusp of another global disease problem in the form of the Tropical Race 4 (TR4) strain of Panama disease, which we are now battling in Queensland.

TR4 was first detected in Asia in the 1990s and gradually spread to Indonesia, Taiwan, Malaysia, China, the Philippines and the Northern Territory.

In 2013 the disease drew worldwide headlines when it was also detected in Jordan and Mozambique.

It was the first time TR4 was discovered outside the Asian region and there are still no clear indications as to how it took hold in these nations.

What the spread did show was that TR4 was now a growing threat to global banana supplies.

Latin America and the Caribbean, which combined account for more than 80 per cent of global banana exports, have taken increasingly tougher measures to reduce the likelihood of TR4 taking hold through its crops.

In fact, in Costa Rica the agriculture department has declared a “national crop emergency for bananas.”

Some scientists believe if the disease take hold in these regions, it could possibly lead to the eventual demise of industrial farming of the Cavendish banana variety.

This is especially bad news for more than 400 million impoverished people across the globe that relies on bananas for up to one-third of their daily food intake.

So where does this leave us?

About 60 years after the world confronted a soil fungus disease that all but destroyed another banana variety, we again sit on the precipice of a new biosecurity obstacle that threatens to obliterate global supplies.

In the past Australia has felt confident that our world class biosecurity measures would keep the Panama disease from our major banana growing regions.

But distance, like Mozambique and Jordan have also discovered, has proven no barrier.

This is an international problem, with scientists increasingly warning that plagues of bugs and fungal infections are threatening the global supply of the fruit.

It questions how we remain vigilant against the risk of disease when we live and trade in an increasingly transient, global village.

I have spent much of last week in North Queensland, meeting with growers and speaking with biosecurity officials.

These growers have proven resilient and able to rebuild, following the significant production losses following cyclones Larry and Yasi.

We know some councils in North Queensland rely on a successful crop for almost half its total agricultural economic contribution.

Containing the spread of disease and providing assistance to growers should be above party politics at all times.

But containing the spread and providing assistance will take money and it will take time.

Now that we know the disease is present in North Queensland and are firmly on the list of nations that carry the disease in our major growing regions, we will need to make a long term commitment to minimising the economic and social impact of TR4 on our banana industry.

Because despite its previous brush with near extinction, the banana reigns supreme today as the most popular fruit in the world.

We know thousands of workers, families and businesses are reliant on this industry.

Governments cannot afford to let them down.