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Crank it up! Researchers discover that banana plants enjoy thermotherapy

Banana plantation worker in Colombia. Credit: CIAT/N. Palmer
Banana plantation worker in Colombia. Credit: CIAT/N. Palmer

Bioversity International and other CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas scientists have discovered several thermotherapy-related methods that facilitate farmers' battle against banana pests, produce disease-free banana planting materials and have positive effects on yields.

As described in the CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas’ 2015 Annual Report, heat treatment - thermotherapy - is turning out to be a cost-effective tool for controlling disease transmission in banana and plantain and even increasing yields.

According to International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) and Colombian Plantain Growers Federation (FEDEPLATANO) scientists' findings, placing plantain corms in a thermotherapy chamber to sprout under controlled conditions of temperature (50º-70ºC) and high humidity, with frequent fertigation, produced healthy planting materials faster than traditional methods.

Since the validation of the initial prototype of this machine that was led by Bioversity International plant pathologist Miguel Dita, it has been adopted by organizations in Brazil and Colombia. For instance, FEDEPLATANO and CIAT built a large thermal chamber in La Tebaida Quindío, Colombia, that produces disease-free plantain planting material for approximately 7,000 farmers.

As it turns out, these machines can be easily simplified and adapted to different scales and local realities. CIAT researcher Elizabeth Alvarez said that larger thermal chambers are an efficient option for the mass production of clean planting materials for farmer associations, however, the technology can be successfully adapted for smaller scale operations. With technical assistance from several research and NGO partners, farmer associations in the Department of Morazán, El Salvador, built tunnel-formed chambers using translucent plastic sheets and other inexpensive materials that now produce clean banana planting materials for about 1,650 smallholders, 350 of whom are women.

CIAT is promoting this technology with manuals in Spanish and English via the Latin America and Caribbean banana network and collaborating with CIRAD to advertise it as a way to control a banana and plantain disease called Moko bacterial wilt. The technology has been tested in Peru, and there are plans to evaluate it in Ecuador, Nicaragua, Panama, Cameroon and Democratic Republic of Congo.

In addition, International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) researchers have validated an even simpler thermotherapy option for cleaning banana and plantain suckers of nematodes - a practice that has a positive effect on yields. The process involves dipping banana suckers into boiling water for 30 seconds prior to planting thus killing the nematodes that are present on the plant. IITA has promoted this method to African banana and plantain farmers through a manual and flyers in multiple languages, and demonstrations for more than 1,000 farmers in Cameroon, Nigeria and Zanzibar.

Read the original storyHeat can make a difference: production of disease-free banana seed

Photo: Colombian banana plantation worker. Credit: CIAT/N. Palmer