Australia

Bananas taking a battering from cyclones and killer soil disease

By RJ Whitehead

- Last updated on GMT

Bananas taking a battering from cyclones and killer soil disease
As Queenslanders prepare for the return of the category 4 Cyclone Nathan, agriculture authorities are planning their response to another disaster after the arrival of a disease that affects banana trees, remains in the soil for 30 years, is resistant to fungicide and cannot be controlled chemically.

Biosecurity Queensland said that on the basis of test results completed, so far it is confident the banana plant fungal disease Panama Tropical Race 4 (TR4) is present on one banana farm in the North Queensland growing region of Tully. 

Officer Russell Gilmour said the agency had tested a sample taken from the farm in February, and it had come back positive. Another soil sample was later taken, which was also positive, making it the first case to detected on a Queensland farm.

Hunt for source of outbreak

Surveillance is now being conducted on neighbouring farms, as well as farms thought to have used the same service providers, including contract workers, as the affected farm. 

Officials are now tracking down any person or vehicle that recently entered the Tully farm. Containment will be critical, said Australian Banana Growers’ Council chairman Doug Phillips.

Ultimately we’ve got to get right to the boundaries of our properties and take the [biosecurity] steps that we can to protect them​,” he said.

While the detection of Panama TR4 on a farm in a major growing area is a substantial challenge for the Australian banana industry, we are confident it’s a challenge we can successfully meet​.” 

There has been a “very determined, positive and united attitude​” from the industry, community and government, Phillips added.

While the Tully farm has been under quarantine since March 4, other Queensland banana farms have been producing as normal, although measures are in place by officials to test other farms.

Government assembling task force

Biosecurity Queensland is assembling a 50-strong task force stationed in Brisbane and Tully. A joint government and industry group will also be established to devise a longer-term response to the disease.

[Responding to the outbreak] now means that we'll be prepared to support the region when we know the full extent of the spread. There’s no doubt this is a concerning time​,” said Queensland premier Annastacia Palaszczuk.

She said the disease would not spell the end for Queensland’s A$600m (US$458m) banana industry, with the government willing to support its recovery over the long-term.

In a related twist, a research project to trial banana plants that could tolerate Panama TR4 has been halted by another plant disease, banana freckle.

A number of tissue-cultured banana varieties had been growing in the Northern Territory in the hope that one could be found that was resistant to soils infected by Panama disease. The disease had crushed the territory’s own banana industry in the 1990s.

But the trial has been suspended and the banana plants, which were still in their pots, are in the process of being destroyed as part of a policy by the government to eradicate banana freckle, a fungal disease. 

The territory is also set to lose its biggest farm, Darwin Banana Farm, to the bulldozers as the programme temporarily wipes out much of Northern Territory’s banana industry.

In Western Australia, the banana industry is also counting the cost of Cyclone Olwyn, which battered Western Australia’s central coastline over the weekend. 

The banana growing region around Carnarvon was among the worst hit areas, with around 30 growers losing all of their production, according to Australian Banana Growers Council.

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