Since the near collapse of the banana industry in the 1950s and the replacement of Gros Michel with Cavendish, a variety which proved resistant to the original ‘Panama Disease’ (as it was then called), the banana industry has massively expanded and made huge strides in terms of technical sophistication from production methods through to distribution networks.
The brilliance and dedication of the many scientists, technicians, businessmen and farmers who helped to create today’s hyper-efficient, low cost (in financial terms) industry deserve to be acknowledged without reservation.
However, our understanding of the world has changed enormously since the current phase of banana production and trade began. Above all, we are now acutely aware of the ecological limits of the planet and of the impacts on human health of heavy reliance on large volumes of agrochemicals to control plant diseases.
What is worse, our reliance on monocultures in agriculture in general (which make food crops susceptible to disease infestations) is greatly exacerbated in the case of bananas by our simultaneous reliance on a limited range of genetically identical Cavendish clones. This has made our dependence on increasing doses of ever-less effective agrochemicals even more extreme.
The emergence of TR4, the new race of Fusarium Oxysporum, less than 60 years after the original outbreak of ‘Panama Disease’ and its rapid spread throughout Asia (and more recently beyond) has exposed a stark reality. The brilliant edifice we have collectively constructed for the production and trade of dessert bananas is little more than a house of cards built on the shaky foundations of monoculture and genetic uniformity. This house of cards threatens to collapse at any moment
The new threat of TR4 is helping to foster a new spirit of cooperation (a spirit which had already begun to crystallise when the World Banana Forum was first founded) as industry players at all levels realize that the spirit of competition which has served the industry so well in driving forward efficient and lean systems of production and distribution up until now is no longer sufficient to deal with the threat which faces us all, collectively and individually.
As a symptom of this cooperation, the WBF working with the Food & Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) and a great many other players is encouraging more intensive efforts at early detection and monitoring and systems of bio-security, aimed at slowing down the rate of spread of TR4. Alongside this, the race is on for individuals or institutions to find new varieties or to develop new fungicides to control the disease.
Together these approaches constitute the banana industry’s Plan A, but is a Plan A enough? Even if a new variety were to be found in time (and so far the signs are not particularly hopeful), how long would it be before a TR5 or a TR6 or a TR7 emerged? In other fields of epidemiology, once pathogens have learned to throw up new resistant strains, their rate of adaptation tends to speed up exponentially. In other words, if a solution is found now, we may face a TR5 in 30 years time and then a TR6 in only 15 years after that…and so on.
Plan A is undoubtedly essential in the short tem and needs to be pursued with all the rigour and ingenuity we can muster but Plan A does not deal with the underlying problem – the shaky foundations of the house of cards.
We need a Plan B, based on a new scientific vision for the 21st century and beyond, one which relies on a deeper understanding of the interactions which occur in natural systems and which uses such understanding to create farming environments which are conducive to high quality production, without over-reliance on a toolbox of relatively crude chemical instruments to bludgeon nature (and inadvertently ourselves) into submission!
A Plan B is beginning to emerge but so far only tentatively. Already publicly funded scientists have helped develop agro-ecological production systems in the Caribbean which have reduced (for example) insecticides to as little as 10% of the levels previously required. Hundreds of small-scale farmers supplying the world market from South America to the Philippines are experimenting with some success in a variety of alternative less environmentally damaging approaches to production (with, in a few cases, signs of greater resilience in the face of TR4). Others are pioneering inter-cropping as a way of reducing the spread of infestations. Such work is in its infancy and tends to be underfunded.
Changing production systems, using techniques like inter-cropping, better understanding and management of soils, crop rotation, cover crops, biological control systems, optimization of the potential for beneficial on-farm biodiversity and other such broadly agro-ecological approaches seldom yield saleable technical innovations. The knowledge and experience generated have enormous value to us and to the industry collectively but offer little in the way of potential profit or pay back for individual investors (unlike such short-term solutions as new varieties or fungicides which can be patented and sold.) As a consequence they attract little financial support from the industry, nor even from most governments (as governments increasingly demand that any funding they supply should be matched by private money).
So far, the industry is putting all its eggs in one basket (the Plan A basket, involving cooperation in containment strategies and competition in the search for saleable new ‘products’). But in so doing, is it simply running the risk of turning the whole industry into a basket case?
If a paradigm shift is to be achieved, we need perhaps to tone down a bit our current emphasis on the competitive side of our natures (whether as individuals or as institutions or businesses) and to rediscover a little more the cooperative side of our natures which are intrinsic to all human life, achievements and indeed our very survival.
WBFIII in Geneva this November could provide us with an opportunity to lay the foundations for an industry, which will be sustainable, not just until next year or for the next five years but for the long term. Managing risk is high on the agenda of most businesses but surely risk management, if it is to be serious, must at least include a Plan B. Is it perhaps time for us to put our heads together and to work out what such a Plan B should look like and how we can collectively fund it?
Banana Link will be publishing our Banana Trade News Bulletin in English and Spanish on Monday 6 November with more perspectives on the issues facing the industry at the World Banana Forum conference. You can subscribe to the bulletin in either language below:
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