7 April, 2014

The reality behind ‘bananageddon’

by Martine Parry, Media and Public Relations Manager at the Fairtrade Foundation

‘Bananageddon’ is a word that has been bandied around this weekend in national newspapers, ahead of an upcoming report from the United Nations (UN) on the spread of Panama disease across banana farms and the devastating effect it is having on farmers.

banana trees
Here Martine Parry, Fairtrade Foundation Media and Public Relations Manager, explains why the reality behind the bananageddon headlines is far from sensational as thousands of farmers struggle to contain this destructive disease.

The humble banana is a fragile fruit. Panama disease tropical race 4 (TR4)  is, unfortunately, just one of a number of diseases that can attack the most popular fruit in the world.

This week scientists will warn that the world’s banana crop is facing disaster. Panama disease, which has recently spread from south east Asia to Mozambique, is just one of dozens of factors that is putting the UK’s favourite fruit at grave risk.

Panama disease is a devastating fungal soil pathogen which attacks the roots of the plants and goes on to colonise the vascular system causing it to wilt and turn yellow. The plant eventually dies from dehydration. The disease is resistant to fungicide. Even worse, once contaminated by the disease, soil becomes unfit for future banana production for the next 30 years. In the 1950s the disease famously wiped out the dominant variety of banana, Gros Michel, and decimated producers’ livelihoods.

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), if the spread of Panama disease can’t be stopped, export banana plantations across Africa and the Middle East will be at risk, causing severe social consequences with an effect on food consumption, income and employment in many banana exporting countries.

Exporting bananasThe reality is that banana producers face an ongoing battle. They have to contend with annual crop-devastating hurricanes, climate change, pests and diseases, while struggling to remain competitive with rising costs of production and living costs.  The Fairtrade Foundation’s recent report ‘Britain’s Bruising Banana Wars’ reveals that the cost of producing bananas has doubled in the past 10 years.

Panama disease is just one of a number of blights faced by the delicate banana plant. The Cavendish banana, the most popularly-known banana type, was developed as a clone and is today the most important variety in international trade. It was introduced to fulfil modern needs for transportation over long distances, ready for ripening with a consistent flavour. Today Cavendish is threatened by new strains of fungal diseases. .

Sadly in the 1980s when the Cavendish banana was introduced to Malaysia, where thousands of acres of rain forest were converted to banana production to meet our growing appetite for bananas, Panama disease struck again and within just a few years, the new plants began to die.

Panama disease has now spread worldwide to Pakistan, the Philippines and Indonesia and is on the rise in Africa and Australia. Scientists are desperately trying to engineer the Cavendish to make it Panama disease resistant before more producers are hit.

Bananas are crucial to the economies of many developing countries, and with thousands of farmers and workers finding themselves in precarious positions dealing with the numerous threats to their crop, disease can have a devastating effect.

Hurricane damage in the Windward IslandsMany banana producers are making the decision to invest their Fairtrade Premium into disease control. This can be as simple as purchasing mist blowers to control leaf spot disease or training producers in farm and crop management. Often, it involves mitigation in case the worst happens, for example by ensuring plants are protected. In many cases the Fairtrade Premium has been the only lifeline to help banana producers out of uncertain positions when disaster strikes. In the Caribbean island of Dominica, producers used the Fairtrade Premium to set up a Hurricane Disaster Fund after banana production was wiped out by Hurricane Dean in 2007. They invested in field rehabilitation, replanting banana trees and paying supplementary labour costs – all of which helped them to resume production quickly.

If we don’t value the farmers who produce the fruit we love so much, by paying them the right price for their hard work and ensuring they are supported in combating the often horrendous challenges they face daily as banana producers, we may well find that soon the banana isn’t something we can enjoy as part of our every day lunchbox in the UK.

This is why we continue to ask shoppers, businesses and the government to Stick with Foncho and help make bananas fair. If farmers and workers are paid a fair price, they will be able to plan for a more positive future should they have to face Panama disease or one of the dozens of other challenges they come up against each day to make sure we get the bananas we love.

You can sign our petition to help make bananas fair here

Read Britain’s Bruising Banana Wars – Why Cheap Bananas Threaten Farmers’ Futures

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