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The strain, Tropical Race 4 (TR4), was first identified in Taiwan, and has jumped from Asia to the Middle East and Africa, reaching as far as Latin America. Scientists are describing it as the equivalent of Covid-19 in bananas. As the coronavirus disease outbreak rages on, ‘fusarium wilt TR4’, a novel fungus strain that has devastated plantations across the globe this year, is setting up new hotspots and threatening output in India, the world’s largest producer of bananas. It cripples plantations by first attacking the leaves, which turn yellow from their trailing edges before wilting away. There is no effective remedy yet.
“One could say it is the Covid-19 of the plant world. Hotspots have been found in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, which we are trying to contain,” said S. Uma, the director of National Research Centre for Bananas (NRCB), Trichy.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, TR4 is one of the ‘the most destructive of all plant diseases’. As with Covid-19, there is no treatment yet. So, scientists recommend biosecurity measures including ‘plant quarantine’ to slow its spread. The spreading disease has jeopardised the $26 billion global banana trade.
A healthy snack, banana is the world’s most globally exported fruit, according to the FAO. That’s a reason for worry as the disease is breaching borders through imports.
India produces 27 million tonnes of bananas annually and grows about 100 varieties. TR4 has infected the most commonly sold variety, the one you mostly likely have for breakfast: Grand Nain a curvy yellow fruit.
Inability to contain TR4 could jolt farm incomes and push up banana prices. One medium banana (126 gms) provides about 110 calories, 0 gram fat, 1 gram protein, 28 grams carbohydrate, 15 grams sugar (naturally occurring), 3 grams fibre and 450 mg potassium and trace quantities of vitamin C and B6, according to the Hyderabad-based National Institute of Nutrition.
Most of India’s bananas are consumed domestically. Equador, the largest exporter, is currently the epicentre and scientists haven't been able to ascertain how TR4 entered India. Fusarium wilt is not new. It entirely wiped out Gros Michel, the dominant export variety of bananas in 1950s. It was in response to this that a new resistant variety, Grand Nain, came up. That has now fallen to TR4. The challenge is to now identify or develop new resistant varieties. That’s the only way to manage it, according to Uma, until an effective agent is found.
The Indian Council of Agricultural Research is advocating a set of measures, known as ‘biopriming’. It has asked farmers whose plantations have been affected to abandon them. They must grow rice for a year or two before returning to banana. “That way the chain is broken,’ said R Selvarajan, a scientist with the NRCB.
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