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UN to help Pacific island agriculture, save bananas

Christian Fernsby |
The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) pledged to work hand in hand with the people of the Pacific to improve nutrition, and mitigate the worst effects of climate change.

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The commitment came at a joint meeting of Pacific Ministers of Agriculture and Forestry, as part of the Pacific Week of Agriculture being held in Samoa, convened jointly by FAO and the Pacific Community (SPC).

Many Pacific island countries, and Small Island Developing States (SIDS) around the world, are disproportionately threatened by climate change and the impacts of severe weather events, says FAO, a point driven home during last week’s landmark summit on SIDS and the unique challenges they face, at UN Headquarters in New York.

Coupled with the vulnerability to rising sea levels and crippling extreme weather events, the small size and isolation of many Pacific island communities has also led to unhealthy diets though an increasing reliance on imported, processed foods.

Many of these foods are high in fat, sugar and salt, leading to a crisis of obesity. The Pacific region is home to all the countries ranked in the top ten highest obesity rates globally, and it has the highest prevalence of diabetes per capita, FAO notes.

The region has made progress in implementing an action programme on food security and nutrition, but much more will need to be achieved if the Pacific Islands are to meet the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.

In a renewed effort to help protect banana crops in Latin America and the Caribbean, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has launched an emergency project to curb major plant losses threatened by a fungal disease.

FAO assistant chief and Regional Representative for Latin America and the Caribbean, Julio Berdegué, stressed that “the role of bananas in providing food and household income in this region cannot be understated.”

According to FAO, bananas are the most traded fresh fruit in the world, and the banana sector serves as an essential source of employment and income for thousands of rural households in developing countries. While India is the top banana producing country in the world, the Latin American nations of Brazil, Ecuador, Costa Rica, Mexico and Colombia rank among the top 10, with Ecuador leading the world in banana exports.

The TR4 (Tropical Race, 4) strain of the fungus Fusarium oxysporum f.sp. cubense was first detected in Ecuador’s neighbor, Colombia, in July, where 175 hectares of banana farms were put under quarantine by the Instituto Colombiano Agropecuario (ICA), an entity looking after the country’s agriculture and fishing sectors.

FAO warned that the possibility of the disease spreading “would have devastating impacts for farmers and their families across the region.”

Bananas are of particular significance in some of the least developed and low-income countries, where beyond contributing to household food security, they generate income as a cash crop.

For some small farmers, banana crops account for 75 per cent of their total monthly income, FAO reports.

The fungus’s ability to wipe out entire plantations could threaten critical food sources, household incomes and export revenues.

TR4 pathogens deplete plants by attacking the roots and stems, including those of the Cavendish banana variety, one of the globally most popular.

Though harmless to humans, the fungus can easily spread through planting materials, and movement of infested soil particles on shoes, vehicles and in water.

Though research is ongoing, there is no fully effective treatment of soil or plants to control or cure Fusarium disease. In addition, fungal spores are able to lie dormant in soil for more than 30 years, and have proved resistant to fungicides, according to FAO’s World Banana Forum, which addresses the fruit’s sustainability challenges.

For these reasons, TR4 is considered “the world’s greatest threat to banana production.”

To help eradicate the disease, FAO has been providing technical assistance by way of diagnostics and identifying risk pathways. The agency recommends fortifying soil health and strengthening genetic resources to build resilience to the disease in the future.