Gert Kema WUR

Professor Gert Kema

The spread of fungal disease TR4 threatens to stop the global banana business dead in its tracks. As a leading authority on tropical phytopathology, Professor Gert Kema of Wageningen University & Research is on a mission to save the industry – not just from the disease itself but also from what he describes as an unwillingness to face up to reality. Speaking exclusively to Fruitnet, he considers where the banana trade might be heading next.

Would you say the international banana industry is any closer to winning its ongoing battle to contain and even reverse the spread of TR4?

Gert Kema:No, the industry is losing. They have neglected Panama disease (fusarium wilt) and black Sigatoka for years. They have not taken their responsibility to ensure sustainable production, rather they have contributed to the dissemination of the disease – particularly the biggerindustries that can move and have facilitated the dissemination of the pathogen, including the introduction ofTR4in Africa. None of the industry partners have taken initiatives to stop that situation and invest in R&D towards sustainability, except for Chiquita. Their call, and active involvement and investment to change that status quo, is courageous and an example for the entire industry.

How much risk is there of TR4 spreading to untouched areas of the world?

GK:Tremendous risk. We seeTR4moving all the time. Active land claim/rent policies by banana entrepreneurs facilitate the dissemination. In short:TR4was identified in the late 1960s but nobody paid attention, hence it kept spreading. Alarms were raised in the 1990s, but nothing happened. Until we foundTR4outside south-east Asia, the sector kept silent, but this woke them-up and since then many more incursions ofTR4were discovered by us and others. We are now at a point of no return to prepare for the worst and invest in sustainable solutions.

So in the past year, what advances has the industry made?

GK:Essentially, none. The innovations have come from universities and institutes and were only reluctantly and slowly adopted by the industry.

In which particular areas do you think there is more to be done?

GK:Essentially every area. We hardly understand the epidemiology. We have just two – two! – genes for resistance identified. We do not at all understand the genes that control pathogenicity. We have slow phenotyping protocols. We have a very poor extension programme. We do not have any emergency chemical control options. We do not fully understand the impact of the disease. We have a very poor understanding of the multidisciplinary aspects of banana production during a state of emergency and how growers respond to it. We are way behind virtually any other sector.

What about Cavendish itself? Is it ultimately destined to suffer the same fate as Gros Michel?

GK:To be honest, I believe the times for Cavendish are over. It is a remnant of old-fashioned monoculture; agronomically insane and at a global scale. I do not know any other crop that has been marketed so smartly to consumers that are unaware of this situation. The future lies in diversity. Deploythe richness of nature for the benefit of growers and consumers – that will make the sector lively and sustainable. Strategies to maintain Cavendish as the one and only banana are narrow-minded. However, we currently do not have anything else, so we have to live with it, protect it and meanwhile develop a suite of new innovative breeds that will excel and replace it.

You were involved in the recent International Congress of Plant Pathology (ICPP) in Boston, which hosted what was described as the first truly international meeting to encourage sharing of scientific research into TR4. What happened at the event and was anything in particular agreed?

GK:Boston was a great success. We had 25 talks spanning the entire r&d field and about 60 participants. The banana session, right after the plenary talks, was well received and many participants joined. I am very grateful that Chiquita and ICPP provided this fantastic platform for banana research. The outcome is simply that the urgency is even higher. We know what to do, thus it did not change our strategies but we exposed many more people to the issues in bananas and that is very important. We should interest scientists outside the established banana R&D area to receive new ideas and expand the community in order to have a larger critical mass.

What do you hope to achieve now?

GK:TR4and Panama disease have been discussed at international sector meetings, which was good, but these often ended up with emotional disagreements on stage with an audience of, largely, farmers. Can you imagine what message comes across? We need meetings such as at ICPP to facilitate a scientific exchange and debate. We need to separate facts from fairytales. That is good for the sector and good for developing new strategies and ultimately to make progress. Banana research has been at a standstill for decades.

What do you think those attending the summit will have been able to learn about TR4 and its impact on the business?

GK:Our meetings provided the latest status with regard toTR4and illustrated the extreme urgency as it affects not only export trade bananas, but also many local varieties for domestic markets. Participants were informed about the strategies that have been explored, what progress has been made, and hence they will now understand the urgency. We need to expand in size and thoroughness to speed up, as there is no time to lose.

What should be done now?

GK:We should build a global coalition for sustainable banana production, involving all stakeholders across the logistics chain and consider every threat. TR4 is not the only millstone around the industry’s neck; there are other diseases with equal importance. Moreover, the industry is intimately connected with inequality. Farmers need to have a good price as the cost of production has only been rising. So strategies should have a broad view and sector-wide implications. That is why I mentioned that Chiquita has an exemplary vision and courageousness, which is new, relevant and absolutely necessary for a continued and diversified banana production with a focus on the consumer.

And what about the next steps in combating TR4 – what can this international community of experts do in practice?

GK:Collaborate, expand, adopt new talent, rejuvenate and forget their own agendas and climb off their hobby-horses; listen to and engage with the sector for the benefit of all banana growers. It is very artificial to separate smallholders from industrial producers. They all suffer from the same problems and need innovation from every angle. Therefore, the sector and the community have to adopt the latest insights for banana protection and improvement, and broaden their horizons, as huge problems generally cannot be solved with simple solutions.