Global Food Prices Stable, But Banana Disease Threatens To Sack Millions

Banana isolated
Banana isolated

By Akanimo Sampson

Global food prices were steady in September, as lower sugar prices were offset by increased quotations for vegetable oils and meat. But, in Latin America and the Caribbean, the Banana Fusarium wilt disease or Fusarium oxysporum f.sp. cubense incorrectly referred to as Panama Disease occasionally, is threatening to sack millions of people who depend on the crop for their livelihoods.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), a United Nations agency has waded in to arrest the situation with an emergency project under its Technical Cooperation Programme to help the affected countries fight the spread of Fusarium wilt, a fungal plant disease that can wipe out the banana crops upon which the livelihoods of millions of citizens depend.

The disease – caused by the most recent strain (Tropical Race 4, TR4) of the fungus Fusarium oxysporum f.sp. cubense – affects the production of many varieties of plantains and bananas, including Cavendish, one of the globally most popular varieties in the market.

TR4 damages the roots and stems of the plant and, while not harmful to human health, can lead to 100 percent yield losses, making it a major concern for countries and communities where banana production is a critical source of food, household income, and export revenues.

TR4 was recently detected for the first time in Latin America and the Caribbean in Colombia, where 175 hectares of banana farms have now been put under quarantine by the Instituto Colombiano Agropecuario (ICA).

Nearby Ecuador is the world’s largest banana exporter, while Colombia, Costa Rica, and Guatemala are also major producers. If the disease spreads, it would have devastating impacts for farmers and their families across the region.

FAO Assistant Director-General and Regional Representative for Latin America and the Caribbean, Julio Berdegué, said “the role of bananas in providing food and household income in this region cannot be understated. In several countries, this crop has national economic importance, as it is a major export. Together, we can curb the spread of this devastating disease, and protect livelihoods.

“This emergency project will assist countries in developing regional and national action plans, increasing their capacities to prevent, diagnose, monitor and contain outbreaks, and raise awareness and disseminate information among farming communities,” he added. “National governments, like those of Ecuador and Colombia, are providing active and intelligent leadership, and we are solidly behind them.”

In addition, the new TR4 wilt project for Latin America and Caribbean also aims to support greater collaboration and experience-sharing among the countries in the region.
These activities will be conducted, under the leadership of national governments, in a coordinated effort with relevant phytosanitary institutions, including national and regional plant protection organisations (CAHFSA, CAN, COSAVE, OIRSA) as well as the International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC) Secretariat.

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TR4 is a pathogen that can be transmitted through movement of infested planting materials, contaminated soil, water or other physical means such as shoes, tools and tyres. Once established, the pathogen remains in the soil for decades; currently there is no way to eradicate it completely.

However, measures do exist that can be effective in limiting the spread of the disease, including: implementing appropriate preventive and phytosanitary measures, establishing the right regulatory environment, raising awareness, building multi-stakeholder collaborations, engaging with the private sector and smallholder farmers, supporting increased biodiversity, improving the effective use of genetic resources, developing disease management and recovery programmes, and improving monitoring and early action.

“Countries must be vigilant in monitoring and containing any TR4 cases. Only strict observation of phytosanitary measures can prevent the disease from spreading. Concerted local and regional efforts, scientific support, early detection and international collaboration are crucial to combat TR4,” said Hans Dreyer, Director of FAO’s Plant Production and Protection Division.

Even prior to the launch of the new project in Latin America and the Caribbean, FAO has been providing technical assistance to affected countries to limit the spread of the disease.  This includes policy and technical guidance to assist them in prevention and diagnostics, and in identifying risk pathways.

At the international level, FAO is establishing a global network on TR4 under the World Banana Forum, the multi-stakeholder platform of the banana sector, which the Organization facilitates. The network will help coordinate actions and disseminate technical advice from specialized bodies, including the Forum’s TR4 Task Force.

Additionally, the International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC), whose Secretariat is hosted by FAO, also recently convened a workshop in Colombia for agricultural experts from 16 Latin American countries on plant health including best practices to prevent the spread of Fusarium wilt.

The Cavendish banana variety makes up around 47 percent of global production.

Diversification, soil health and better use of available genetic resources are key to building resilience to the disease in the long term. Threats to the Cavendish may encourage farmers, and the private sector, to move away from monocropping towards more biodiverse plantation systems using some of the 1,000-plus other banana varieties.

In the mean time, the FAO Food Price Index which tracks monthly changes in the international prices of commonly-traded food commodities, averaged 170 points in September, virtually unchanged from August and 3.3 percent higher than in the same month in 2018.

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The FAO Cereal Price Index held steady on the month, as wheat prices rose while those of maize declined. International rice prices fell modestly amid slow import demand and uncertainties surrounding policies in the Philippines and Nigeria.

The FAO Vegetable Oil Price Index rose 1.4 percent in September to its highest level in more than a year. The increase was driven by steady demand from India and China for palm oil imports and higher price quotations for rapeseed oil, linked to firm demand from the European Union’s biodiesel sector. Soy and sunflower oil prices both dropped.

The FAO Sugar Price Index declined 3.9 percent from August, driven by the expectations of ample stocks and supply trends as well as reduced demand in Brazil for sugarcane to use in the production of ethanol.

The FAO Dairy Price Index declined 0.6 percent, as higher quotations for milk powders were more than offset by falling cheese and butter prices, especially at the lower end of the price range.

The FAO Meat Price Index rose 0.8 percent, driven by solid import demand from China. While pigmeat prices in China, the world’s largest market remained at a high levels recorded in August, increased export supplies in Europe, prodded pigmeat prices in international markets lower.

In the new Cereal Supply and Demand Brief also published today, FAO slightly lowered its forecast for global cereal production in 2019 to 2,706 million tonnes, which would amount to two percent higher than in 2018.

The reduction reflected a cut to Australia’s wheat harvest due to dry weather and trimmed projections for rice output in China, India, the Philippines and the United States of America.

Meanwhile, FAO raised its estimates for worldwide coarse grains production based on an improved outlook for barley production and better maize prospects in Brazil and the US.

World cereal utilisation in the year ahead is now forecast at 2,714 million tonnes, slightly trimmed from last month’s estimates but still a record high. World cereal stocks are now expected to amount to 850 million tonnes by the close of the 2020 seasons, down 2.0 percent from their opening levels.

Global wheat inventories are anticipated to expand by 1.6 percent, while those of maize will likely register a significant decline, mostly due to expected sharp draw-downs in China.

FAO left its forecast for world trade in cereals in 2019/20 unchanged at around 415 million tonnes. World wheat and rice exports are set to rebound, while those of coarse grains are expected to decline.