Sapa-AFP Rome

The UN warned yesterday of the potential “massive destruction” of the world’s $5 billion (R52bn) a year banana crop as a plant disease spreads from Asia to Africa and the Middle East.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) said the TR4 strain of Panama disease, which has hit tens of thousands of hectares in south-east Asia, had been reported in Jordan and Mozambique.

The disease was “posing a serious threat to production and export” of bananas, the fourth most important crop for least developed countries and a key revenue source for poor farmers, it said in a report.

There is no cure for TR4, which affects the Cavendish variety that accounts for 47 percent of world banana production – by far the biggest.

The disease affects the trees but not the fruit and the only solution is to cut them down, dig trenches between them to prevent its spread and impose quarantine measures.

Top producers in Latin America, including the world’s main producer Ecuador, have not been affected but the FAO warned there was a “potential” risk. “It’s not a question of whether it will arrive but when. There’s no prevention,” said Gert Kema, the director of a banana research programme at Wageningen University in the Netherlands who manages the site

He said the availability of bananas in Europe and the US had not been affected because their main suppliers were in Latin America and the economic impact has been focused mainly in Asia.

“The sooner we have replacements for Cavendish that are resistant to Panama the better, but this is going to take years,” he said, warning there was a risk of repeating mistakes made in a 1950s epidemic. estimates over 100 million tons of bananas are traded every year. The biggest market is the US.

Fazil Dusunceli, a plant pathologist at FAO, was quoted as saying: “Countries need to act now if we are to avoid the worst-case scenario, which is massive destruction of much of the world’s banana crop.”

The disease is soil-borne and the fungus can remain viable for decades. Prevention includes foot baths and measures to avoid movement of infected soil and planting materials into and out of farms.