SOUTH AFRICA - A serious outbreak of a fungal disease that has been responsible for decimating millions of hectares of banana plantations across the world, could now pose a threat to SA’s R1.5bn banana industry.
University of Stellenbosch plant pathologist Altus Viljoen said the outbreak of Panama disease was spreading rapidly across the Metocheria Farm, a 3,000ha farm in northern Mozambique owned by Norwegian company Norfund.
Panama disease has been present in plantations in northeastern 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 Mr Viljoen.
Mr Viljoen said the disease could spread to more banana plantations in the Nampula province and then further into Africa, where it could 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," Mr Viljoen warned.
The Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries said bananas contributed more than 50% of the total gross value of subtropical fruits in SA, amounting to about R1.5bn.
Panama disease, which is caused by the Fusarium fungus, is a soil pathogen that infects the root system and goes on to colonise the entire plant.
In the 1950s, the disease wiped out almost all 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 Southeast 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, Mr Viljoen said that he was surprised at how little was being done by the Banana Growers’ Association of SA (BGASA) to protect SA’s industry from the disease.
"I have been invited everywhere in the world to help people protect the industry, but BGASA has not met 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 SA getting the disease were slim.
"Yes, there is a chance of it spreading to SA, 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 SA by someone (who) takes plant material or soil, but it would have to be intentional," Mr Lourens said.
Mr Lourens added that Mr Viljoen could be undervaluing the efforts BGASA had put into strategies to control the disease.
"I have met with more than one plant protection officer in SA 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," Mr Lourens said.
Joyce Mkhonto, a fruit seller in Mbombela, said 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," Ms Mkhonto said. - News24