Outbreak of fungal disease could threaten SA bananas

Cape Town - A serious outbreak of a fungal disease which has been responsible for decimating millions of hectares of banana plantations across the world, could now pose a threat to South Africa’s R1.5bn banana industry.

According to University of Stellenbosch plant pathologist Altus Viljoen, the outbreak of Panama Disease was spreading rapidly across the Metocheria Farm, a 3 000-hectare farm in northern Mozambique owned by Norwegian company Norfund.

Panama Disease has been present in plantations in north-eastern Mozambique's Nampula province for the past two years.

"The outbreak at Metocheria is very serious. With the flooding at the beginning of 2015, the fungus has been spread almost everywhere on the farm, and most likely also down the Monapo River," said Viljoen.

Viljoen said the disease could spread to more banana plantations in the Nampula province and then further into Africa, where it may threaten food security.

"The outbreak in northern Mozambique most certainly poses a risk to all its neighbouring countries. A major means of spread is water, as well as planting material and soil attached to shoes and vehicles from the farm. 

"South Africans had been visiting the affected farms in Mozambique in the past, and are still visiting the farm to do business. If proper biosecurity is not introduced, South African growers might be affected," Viljoen warned.

Panama disease

According to the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Department, bananas contribute more than 50% of the total gross value of subtropical fruits in South Africa, amounting to about R1.5bn.

Panama Disease, which is caused by the Fusarium fungus, is a soil pathogen which infects the root system and goes on to colonise the entire plant.

In the 1950s, the disease wiped out almost all of the banana plantations in Central and South America. Despite growers switching to a new banana variety called the Cavendish, a new strain of the disease appeared in the 1990s, affecting large areas of South East Asia and spreading to northern Australia.

In Mozambique, a collaborative group of scientists was assisting the affected farms with research and information on how to deal with the outbreaks.

However, Viljoen said that he was surprised at how little was being done by the Banana Growers’ Association of South Africa (BGASA) to protect South Africa’s industry from the disease.

"I have been invited everywhere in the world to help people protect the industry, but BGASA has not met with me to develop a biosecurity strategy for the country," he said.

'Chances of infection slim'

BGASA chairperson Kobus Lourens responded by saying that the chances of South Africa getting the disease were slim.

"Yes, there is a chance of it spreading to South Africa, because if it got to Mozambique it can get anywhere. But to put it in perspective, the site is 2 500km from us. It could be brought to South Africa by someone [who] takes plant material or soil, but it would have to be intentional," said Lourens.

Lourens added that Viljoen may be undervaluing the efforts BGASA had put into strategies to control the disease.

"I have met with more than one plant protection officer in South Africa and they are well aware of the outbreak. The Department of Agriculture does have security measures in place, but only when we have an outbreak here or closer to us, [will] the measures kick in. Nothing will be done while the disease is still in northern Mozambique," Lourens said.

Joyce Mkhonto, 53, a fruit seller in Mbombela, said that bananas were her best-selling product.

"If there is a disease, it means I won't be able to sell bananas anymore. It will have a heavy effect on my business," Mkhonto said.

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