TR4 resistant banana shows promise in the Philippines

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The search for a Philippines banana variety that is resistant to the TR4 Fusarium Wilt disease has been continuing since 2005, and the most promising result so far has been the GCTCV 218, a tissue culture variant from Taiwan. The variety which was brought to the Philippines through the initiative of Dr. Agustin Molina Jr., then the Regional Coordinator for Asia Pacific of Bioversity International, has become the darling of smallhold as well as big time growers in Mindanao.
In 2005, Dr. Molina saw an urgent need for a solution to the virulent Fusarium Wilt disease that was threatening the banana industry in Mindanao which has been bringing into the country about $1 billion a year. The virulent TR4 was first observed in the highland areas in Calinan, Davao City, in 2000 but no one suspected it was TR4 because a milder strain of this disease has been attacking the Cavendish bananas since the 70s. Then sporadic infection occurred in the traditional production areas in the lowland, particularly in Mandug in Davao City, especially around the river that brought spores of the disease from Calinan.
By 2005, the disease was alarmingly spreading and really causing severe losses. Much earlier, Dr. Molina said, TR4 had wiped out the Cavendish plantations of Chiquita Brands and other multinationals in Indonesia and Malaysia. They had hoped to produce bananas for the expanding market in the Middle East but they had to abandon their projects because of TR4.
Dr. Molina, a plant pathologist who worked earlier for 10 years in Central America as a senior scientist and later a corporate director of research and technical services at Chiquita Brands International, drew a plan to attack the problem. The first step was to find out the disease organism that was attacking the Cavendish banana plantations in Mindanao. He was able to confirm that the virulent disease was caused by the Fusarium Wilt Tropical Race 4 (TR4) with the help of a laboratory at Stellenbosch University in South Africa.
Small farmers worst hit - By 2010, it was estimated that no less than 3,000 hectares of smallhold Cavendish banana farmers were destroyed by the disease. The big players like Dole, Lapanday, Tadeco and several others had to adopt their own preventive and curative measures, but thousands of hectares of the big plantations had also suffered from severe infection.
Being familiar with what was happening in the banana industry worldwide, Dr. Molina as a Bioversity coordinator in the Asia Pacific, had to negotiate with the Taiwan Banana Research Institute to share their selections of tissue culture variants that they had used to solve their TR4 Fusarium Wilt problem.
Six TBRI variants were shared with Bioversity International then sent to the Bureau of Plant Industry and UP Los Baños as repository agencies in the Philippines. Meanwhile in 2006, Dr. Molina, talked with Lapanday Fruit, to undertake tissue-culturing of the imported GCTCVs or Giant Cavendish Tissue Culture Variants. Lapanday was only too glad to collaborate and carry out preliminary trials in their infested farms with Dr. Molina because some of the Lapanday farms were also hit by TR4. By 2008, epidemics had significantly increased. The areas in Mandug were totally destroyed. At that time, all the government agencies and other companies were not yet active in addressing the disease.
Dr. Molina said that by 2011, the industry cried for help as thousands of hectares were already affected (3,000 hectares from small growers and maybe 6,000 hectares more from the multinationals).
In 2011 Dr. Molina said that he then engaged PCAARRD (Philippine Council for Agriculture, Aquatic and Natural Resources Research and Development), an agency of the Department of Science and Technology (DOST), to fund replicated field trials of the six variants from Taiwan. Each of the several farmers from different parts in Davao were given 100 tissue-cultured seedlings for each variety, including one Gran Naine for comparison. Helping implement the trials were the Bureau of Plant Industry, UP Los Baños and the University of Southeastern Philippines.
Eventually two of the variants were selected for further field testing in a bigger way. For out-scaling, the DA-Bureau of Agricultural Research financed the field planting of the two selected variants. Twenty farmers were given planting materials for two to three hectares each. After the out-scaling phase, the next step was to release to interested farmers tissue-cultured planting materials of Variant 218. In the out-scaling, two agencies helped in the implementation namely, the BPI Davao and DA-Regopn 11. At the same time, Dr. Molina was coordinating with the big companies in undertaking parallel trials of the selected varieties. By 2014, Variant 218 was released for commercial planting.
In the meantime, Lapanday and other big-time players like Dole went into mass propagation of 218 for their own planting requirements. Dole is about the most aggressive to propagate 218.
Dr. Estrellieta Aldaba said they have already tissue-cultured 5 million seedlings and they are not stopping. Dr. Aldaba is in charge of the tissue-culture operations at Dole.
Dole is not stopping at just multiplying their original stock. They are conducting their own research.
Variant 218 is well liked by the Cavendish planters not only for its resistance to TR4 but also for some other reasons. For one, it produces a big bunch equivalent to 1.8 boxes (13.5 kg/box) of exportable fruits which is comparable to the yield of the standard Gran Naine and Tall Williams.    In addition, it has a very good hand formation comparable to the standard export varieties. The fruits can be combined in the box together with the old varieties. And the eating quality is as good. Variant 218 also has the same transport and ripening requirement as Gran Naine and Williams.
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Photo: Dr. Gus Molina and ZAc B. Sarian posing with a big bunch of GCTCV 218 (