The Indonesian banana. Protecting a staple food from Panama disease collapse and exploiting its genetic diversity for discovery research

Indonesian project leader: Dr Catur Hermanto, Indonesian Tropical Fruits Research Institute Dutch project leader: Dr Gert Kema, Wageningen University

Disease outbreaks have dramatic impacts and destabilizing effects on societies. Few plant diseases have devastated the production of a food crop as severely as Panama disease, which attacks the banana plant. It cannot be controlled by regular crop protection methods and the spores of the soil-borne fungus that causes the disease contaminate soils for decades, thus knocking out banana production. Panama disease wiped out large areas of bananas plantation in Central and South America in the first half of the 20th century, with an economic impact of at least $2.3 billion. This had a major influence on land acquisition strategies in the banana industry and, consequently, significantly impacted societal relationships. Fortunately, the shift to a resistant banana cultivar – the Cavendish banana – saved banana production in the region and restored economic vitality. However, Panama disease has re-emerged in Southeast Asia in a new, virulent strain of the fungus called Tropical Race 4 (TR4). Cavendish is highly susceptible to TR4, which has destroyed bananas destined for domestic and international markets and spread rapidly throughout the region. Thousands of hectares of Cavendish have been devastated in Indonesia and Malaysia, and TR4 damage comes to $400 million in the Philippines alone. Although TR4 is a huge concern for the global export banana sector, it has an even greater impact on the domestic production of this staple crop; many locally preferred cultivars succumb to TR4, thereby threatening the livelihoods of millions of smallholder producers with no substitute resistant varieties. The relevant international and national research and policymaking communities have therefore raised the alarm and called for concerted action to control this disease.

Banana plantation destroyed by Panama disease. Photo: Gert KemaBanana plantation destroyed by Panama disease - Photo: Gert Kema

The overall objective of this project is to provide sustainable solutions for this food security threat by delivering fundamental knowledge on the banana plant, the TR4 fungus and their mutual interaction in relation to the soil-borne origin of the disease. The project is embedded in a social science framework that recognizes the relevance of human behaviour and collective responses for sustaining local banana production in Indonesia. It is a multidisciplinary cluster of six integrated projects crucial for global Panama disease management, with a strong focus on biological diversity, ecological variability and institutional variety as an entry point for detecting mechanisms that lead to enhanced resilience. The project explores Indonesia’s rich biodiversity as a means of securing food production at local, regional and global levels. The specific objectives of the sub-projects are to discover and describe diversity in the bananagrowing region of Indonesia and to clarify the structure of the co-evolving fungal complex while considering the impact on local growers, who are trying to cope with an unmanageable disease and crop devastation. The project provides Indonesian scientists with ample opportunities to join forces with ongoing and new international research programmes and links in with the national strategic plan for Agriculture, Fisheries, and Forestry Revitalization, which targets a banana production of 11.27 mton in 2025. This project provides the tools, methods and network to effectively manage TR4 and hence to achieve this ambition, along with a spin-off to secure international banana production.