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A pathogen on the move: Fusarium wilt TR4 now in Africa

Banana cultivar infected with fusarium wilt, Australia. Credit: B.Cassey, courtesy of Musarama

In late 2013, fusarium wilt tropical race 4 (TR4) was found for the first time in Africa. Find out more in this Annual Report 2013 story.

In late 2013, Fusarium wilt tropical race 4 (TR4) was found for the first time in Africa. Widely considered to be one of the most devastating diseases in agricultural history,Fusarium wilt (also known as ‘Panama disease’) has wreaked havoc on the commercial banana industry for decades. It is lethal, persistent and attacks a wide range of hosts.

Now TR4 is threatening the Cavendish subgroup of bananas, the most widely grown group of bananas for international trade and domestic use. While it is a serious threat for large-scale producers, TR4 causes problems particularly for smallholder farmers who grow Cavendish bananas, as they lack the technical and financial resources to cope with such epidemics. Unlike large-scale producers, they don’t have the option of relocating when their farms become severely infested.

Bioversity International is researching ways to prevent the spread of TR4, as well as disease management strategies, including the use of resistant cultivars.

In 2013, we conducted field trials in the Philippines on a resistant type of Cavendish from Taiwan known as GCTCV 219, which is helping to safeguard the livelihoods of TR4-affected smallholders. Although the bunches of GCTCV 219 are slightly smaller than those of the most popular Cavendish cultivars and the plants take longer to bear fruit, it is a sweeter banana and has been well received by farmers who have successfully exported the variety. The next step is to increase the production of planting material and to collaborate with the private sector to help farmers meet the growing demand for GCTCV 219.

In 2011–2012, anticipating the possibility that the disease might make the jump to Africa, we started looking at how African bananas would react to the virulent fungal strain. The tests showed promise: East African highland bananas were less affected by the disease in field trials in China and the Philippines.

Preventing the spread of TR4 is paramount. If it were to reach Latin America – the world’s largest exporter of bananas – it would devastate both commercial exporters and related local economies. To raise awareness of the disease, we organized 11 workshops on quarantine pests with an emphasis on TR4, as part of the contingency plan for TR4 published by the Organismo Internacional Regional de Sanidad Agropecuaria (OIRSA).

This story is from our Annual Report 2013
Read the Annual Report 2013 here.

This work is part of the CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas and is supported by the Global Crop Diversity Trust and the Philippines Department of Agriculture – Bureau of Agricultural Research.

Photo: Banana cultivar infected with fusarium wilt, Australia. Credit: B.Cassey, courtesy of Musarama

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