Battle for the banana: Disease and climate change threaten world's favourite fruit

World exports slipping as pests and weather take toll

Droughts in the Philippines are among the climate risks facing global banana production. Getty
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The world eats an estimated 100 billion bananas every year, but the staple fruit is under threat from climate change and crop disease, a double whammy troubling the global food industry.

Sweet, practical, suitable for all ages and elegantly packaged in nature's yellow wrapper, the banana is the world's most traded fruit.

But tackling threats to banana production is not easy, insiders say, because what helps farmers can sometimes harm the environment and exacerbate the problem in the long run.

Concern is mounting about a banana-killing pest called fusarium wilt that is spreading in the Philippines and has been detected in parts of South America and Africa.

Also known as Panama disease, it was responsible for virtually wiping out the once-dominant Gros Michel banana and has mutated to kill the Cavendish, the world’s favourite variety today.

The threat is heightened by antimicrobial resistance that can make pesticides useless – a problem hanging over the food industry at large.

“This stuff is wiping out things. Bananas, coffee, olive oil, all these things are under massive threat,” one industry source told The National.

In the banana industry “nothing works, nothing is stopping it”, they said.

The fungal disease is one of several factors blamed for declining banana exports, along with severe weather, high fertiliser costs and the state of the world economy, by analysts at the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation.

Climate change is escalating the threat of droughts, floods and tropical storms to fruit growers and changing the pattern of disease outbreaks. Back-to-back hurricanes in 2020 destroyed about 40 per cent of banana plants in Honduras.

Pesticide dilemma

And here lies a dilemma. You can try to limit antimicrobial resistance by using fewer pesticides. Indeed, Germany’s Agriculture Minister Cem Ozdemir said this week that they should be used “as sparingly as possible”.

“We need to reinforce our commitment to curbing the use of pesticides and mineral fertilisers on our fields,” Mr Ozdemir said in an appeal for soil health at a UN food summit in Rome.

Tackling pathogenic resistance caused by “inappropriate or excessive use of antimicrobials” is also part of a six-point strategy unveiled by the UK’s Health Security Agency on Tuesday.

But the catch is that using fewer pesticides leads to lower yields, so more land is needed to produce the same amount of food. Organic farms, for example, are typically larger than conventional ones.

This matters because clearing land for agriculture is the cause of about 80 per cent to 90 per cent of deforestation. That, in turn, drives climate change because fewer trees mean less CO2 is removed from the atmosphere.

It is why the FAO believes that “we cannot go all-organic, because organic means that you have to find land somewhere”, according to David Laborde, the head of its agrifood economics division.

“We will always need chemicals,” said the industry source worried about bananas.

“Farmland should be used for growing crops. If you don’t, you’re cutting down rainforests.”

The EU aims to cut pesticide use by 50 per cent in a drive to restore soil health. It also wants to use less fertiliser that releases nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas.

We cannot go all-organic
David Laborde, FAO

Leonard Mizzi, the head of an EU unit on global partnerships in agriculture, said Europe is “not saying no” to chemicals, but “you can’t [make] heavy use of synthetic fertilisers if you don’t link it to soil maps or to soil health”.

Scientists at a Dutch university are testing a new kind of fungicide made from copper and zinc against the banana disease. Its producers are hopeful of approval in the US although copper is viewed with caution by some regulators.

Geneticists at the university say the banana disease is advancing in Mozambique, having appeared to be under control. Production in Tanzania, Malawi, Uganda and Rwanda could also be under threat.

Genetically modifying bananas is another option but the suggestion tends to ring alarm bells among regulators and the public.

Most of the world’s top banana exporters are in Central and South America, although the Philippines is also a leading producer and the fruit is often consumed locally in Africa.

Europe and the US are major importers – residents in Britain alone are estimated to eat five billion bananas a year – and a decline in global trade could damage the income of developing countries.

The movement Fairtrade says almost half of UK banana imports originate from countries that are highly vulnerable to climate change. Although demand remained strong, world banana exports dropped by more than a million tonnes in 2022 due to supply problems including weather and fusarium wilt.

Senior officials were in similarly pessimistic mood at this week’s Rome summit, where UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said that “food systems are broken” and that Russia’s withdrawal from the Black Sea grain deal was worsening a global price squeeze.

The UAE’s presidency of Cop28 promises to make food and agriculture a major theme of the Dubai climate summit, with leaders encouraged to sign a declaration on transforming food systems.

UAE Minister for Climate Change and Environment Mariam Al Mheiri told delegates that without rethinking farming, there was “no realistic pathway” to achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement, which commits the world to capping global warming at 1.5°C if possible.

If it does not, it will not just be bananas under threat.

Updated: July 28, 2023, 6:00 PM