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The UNFood and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has launched an emergency project to curb major plant losses threatened by Fusarium wilt in a renewed effort to help protect banana crops in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Under the FAO’s Technical Cooperation Programme,the project willwork tofight the spread of the fungal disease, which can wipe outplantations ofbanana crops,upon which millions of people depend for their livelihoods.

FAO assistant chief and Regional Representative for Latin America and the Caribbean, JulioBerdegué, said: “the role of bananas in providing food and household income in this region cannot be understated”.

According to the FAO, bananas are the most traded fresh fruit in the world, and the banana sector serves as an essential source of employment and income for thousands of rural households in developing countries.

Following July’s discovery in Colombia of the Tropical Race 4 strain of Fusarium wilt, considered to be the world’s greatest threat to banana production, the FAOwarned thatthe possibility of the disease spreading “would have devastating impacts for farmers and their families across the region”.

Bananas are ofparticular significancein some of the least developed andlow-incomecountries, where beyond contributingto household food security, they generate income as a cash crop.

For some smallfarmers, bananacropsaccount for 75 per cent of their total monthly income, according to the FAO. It warns that the fungus’s ability to wipeout entire plantations could threaten critical food sources, household incomes and export revenues.

Though research is ongoing, there is no fully effective treatment of soil or plants to control or cure Fusarium disease. In addition, fungal spores are able to lie dormant in soil for more than 30 years, and have proved resistant to fungicides.

To help eradicate the disease, the FAO has been providing technical assistanceby way ofdiagnostics and identifying risk pathways.The agency recommends fortifying soil health and strengthening genetic resources to build resilience to the disease in the future.

Hans Dryer, who heads up FAO’s Plant Production and Protection Division alerted countries to “be vigilant in monitoring and containing any TR4 cases”.

“Only strict observation can prevent spreading, along with scientific support, early detection and international collaboration,” he added.

Limitingthe spreading of disease, raising awareness, engaging with farmersand developing disease recoveryprogrammesare some of the concrete efforts FAOis implementing to mend the issue.

A global network on TR4 under the World Banana Forum is underway to help coordinate further technical advice from specialists.

In addition, the International Plant Protection Conventionrecently held a workshop in Colombia on plant health best practices to prevent spread of the disease.