JOHANNESBURG – South Africa’s R1.9 billion a year banana growing and export industry, which employs more than 100 000 people, is at risk following the discovery of Banana Bunchy Top Virus (BBTV) in Kwazulu-Natal’s Ugu District.
Subsistence farmers are to be hit the hardest with their livelihoods at risk. These farmers are too financially stretched out to afford the necessary chemicals to treat the aphid. A bunch of bananas sold here and another bartered for a favour makes all the difference in a hard life.
“I am not saying they will not feel it, but commercial farmers are likely to pull together and find a solution. But the most hard-hit guys will be the small farmers for whom the crop is a means of regular livelihood, those are the guys who need all the help,” commercial farmer Blaine Peckham said.
BBTV gets its name from the bunchy appearance of infected plants. It can be transmitted through banana aphids, Pentalonia nigronervosa and through infected banana planting material.
The disease has already wiped out a 160 ha commercial farm on which the outbreak was first identified after the farmer had to uproot and destroy every single plant to curb spread of the virus.
Consequently, banana plants in the rural households surrounding the affected area are also under pressure.
“The small scale- and subsistence farmers in the region are the ones mostly affected because they don’t have the means to buy the insecticide and herbicide to treat infected plants. Funding from the government is needed to ensure that these farmers will be able to protect their banana crops,” Peckham said.
He said commercial farmers in the region were contributing towards chemicals to help the farmers in the rural communities.
In the UGU region of KwaZulu-Natal, an estimated 175 000 households reside and if 25 percent of the households grow eight banana plants each that get infected, it can cause losses of up to R17.5 million income for the region, Peckham observed.
The Agricultural Reseach Council (ARC), together with the Department of Food and Fisheries and the Banana farming community, say that if left uncontrolled the virus could spread to other banana growing parts of the country, with dire consequences for the industry and the South African economy.
“Any further spread of the virus could devastate the banana industry, currently valued at R1.9 billion with more than 100 000 jobs,”ARC spokesperson Mpho Ramosili said.
Prior to the identification of BBTV in South Africa, the virus was first detected in neighbouring Zambia and Mozambique.
Spread of the disease is through the banana aphid as well as propagation material. If proper control measures for the banana aphid are in place and people from informal markets are aware of the danger of selling planting material, the spread of the disease can be slowed down.
Currently, the disease is restricted to the Southern KZN region and ongoing surveys are conducted to monitor the spread in this region. The ARC is also conducting surveys in other banana growing regions and to date no other outbreaks have been reported.
Early detection of further infections is crucial to prevent crop losses.
Control measures for the disease include farmers scouting for banana plants with symptoms on plantations, removal of infected plants and control of the banana aphids.
Teams comprised of the ARC in partnership with government, led by Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) and farmers (commercial and smallholder) are working to curb the spread of the disease to other regions.
ARC chief executive Dr Shadrack Moephuli said, “The ARC is hard at work jointly with the DAFF to combat the spread of the virus threatening banana productions for both commercial and smallholder farmers.
“We are carrying out surveys in collaboration with DAFF around Komatipoort and Kiepersol. These surveys will be extended to other banana growing regions of South Africa. The ARC is also closely monitoring the situation in KwaZulu-Natal to determine the spread of the disease.”
Systematic surveys are conducted in the rural areas by ARC and DAFF, moving from household to household to inspect plants. When infected plants are detected, a removal order is given to the household by a DAFF official and plants are treated with an insecticide and killed with a herbicide. The plants are then removed when dead. People are educated not to plant banana on the same position for six months to eliminate the chance of spread.
Banana bunchy top disease is the most serious virus disease of banana worldwide. Diseased plants rarely produce fruit and when they do, the fruit is stunted and twisted.