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Disease threatens banana supplies

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Malawi is at a risk of being hit by a deadly banana disease, christened Panama which is a lethal fungal disease caused by the soil-borne fungus, Fusariumoxysporum, that affects the roots of banana plants.

Scientists say the pathogen is resistant to fungicide and cannot be controlled chemically.

A new study by agricultural scientists has confirmed that dying banana plants in various parts of the world are suffering from Tropical Race 4, a more potent mutation of Panama Disease which is spreading to parts of Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.

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Already, the government of Tanzania has banned importation of bananas from Mozambique for fear of the disease spreading wide.

The scare is coming at a time when the country is trying to contain another deadly banana disease, Bunchy Top, which has affected banana supplies and reports of Panama spreading to Africa puts the sector further at risk.

Horticulture Scientist, Felix Chipojola, confirmed that the disease is deadly and could wipe out banana plantations if no interventions are put in place quickly.

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“As we are fighting the Banana Bunchy Top, Panama is also as deadly. The disease can contaminate the new clean banana suckers that we are giving to farmers and could also damage old suckers if left unchecked,” Chipojola said.

Government has confirmed being aware of the problem and that it is in the process of setting up meetings to engage farmers and other stakeholders in the value chain to avert importation of infected plants into the country.

National Research Coordinator of Plant Protection in the Ministry of Agriculture, Elisa Mazuma, said government will inform the general public on measures it is taking to secure Malawi’s banana fields.

“We will shortly be issuing a press release on the same specifically to those who import banana plants from countries like Mozambique. Among interventions to be taken will be stopping importation until we establish a place where the banana plants will be quarantined,” he said.

According to a statement from the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Fishery of Tanzania, Panama has been present in Northern Mozambique for the past few years until now when it has spread across the country.

As of 2013, banana harvests dropped from 410,378 tonnes in 2009 to 386,345 tonnes according to a study by Food and Agriculture Organisation (Fao) of the United Nations released in 2015.

In Thyolo alone, fields planted to bananas dropped from 30,000 in 2009 to 5,000 in 2014, according to Thyolo District Agriculture Development Officer, Raphael Mkisi.

Mkisi said this has affected production which is now at 1,000 kilogrammes per hectare from 41, 000.

Mkisi added that the development has affected 1,842 banana farming families in the district who relied on bananas for their livelihood.

Two years ago, the United Nations warned that the Panama disease could destroy much of the world’s banana crop.

Since then, things have not improved. A new outbreak was discovered last year in Australia. The disease started in Asia in the 1990s, and later spread to Africa and the Middle East.

World health officials worry the disease could travel to Latin America, one of the top banana producers in the world.

All this is a big concern because bananas are an important source of income and nutrients for millions of people. They are grown in 135 tropical nations.

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