Photo from Peace Corps online
So far, the banana-growing nations of South and Central America - which supply all of our fruit - have escaped the ravages of Panama Disease, the incurable blight that threatens the world's banana crop. As I say in my book, most scientists believe that the fungus will arrive in our hemisphere; the debate is over when. Panama Disease is soil-borne: it has spread through much of Asia in dirt, water, tools, and vehicles. The malady can leap oceans; it was first seen in Malaysia in the early 1990s. It has moved south, thousands of miles, from island to island and over water, and is now spreading rapidly throughout Australia (see this entry and this one.)
Now, officials in the Philippines - a nation where Panama Disease is a huge problem - say that their nation is going to start exporting bananas to the U.S. This will be the first time American consumers have been offered Pacific bananas, and there's reason to be concerned. On December 25, Philippine agriculture secretary Arthur Yap announced that, following the completion of a pest risk analysis, the U.S. had agreed to allow about 10 million tons of Cavendish bananas from Philippine plantations.
This could mean trouble for Latin America's as-yet-to-be afflicted banana crop.>
The US pest containment program is fairly strong - but in terms of Panama Disease, it focuses in the wrong places: the aim is to prevent the transmission of pathogens to people and to protect U.S. farmers from pests and disease that might be carried along with imported crops. The problem is that banana maladies can never spread to U.S. crops - we don't grow them here. (Panama Disease can't make us sick, and as far as eating is concerned, where our bananas come from is of little consequence.) Whether or not the newcomer fruit would be checked for Panama Disease, or whether such checks would be effective, is unknown, especially considering that a handful of dirt can spread the potentially catastrophic fungus.
How would Panama Disease skip from the Philippines, to the U.S., to Latin America? GIven how quickly Panama Disease spreads, and the global nature of the world banana market, I believe there's a working scenario. Just a few major companies import bananas to the U.S. (the vast majority of our market belongs to Chiquita and Dole; the latter company, especially, already ships many varieties of fruit to the U.S. from Asia.) They would certainly be among the ones bringing the Philippine fruit to our markets. Bananas are shipped boxed, in massive containers. Those containers move around the world. One that comes from Asia this month could be transporting Latin American goods next month. Dole and Chiquita own and route most of their own shipments. It isn't hard to see how a banana container that crosses one ocean could end up traveling another, bringing contamination - through a piece of dirty equipment, tracked-in soil, or a crumpled banana box - along with it.
The consequences would be terrifying: as PD's march through Asia and the Pacific shows - especially Australia's failed attempts at containing the disease - there really is no stopping the malady, no cure, and no replacement banana waiting in the wings. “The Philippines is a leader in banana production and creating a new market would aid the livelihood of farmers in Mindanao where much of the exports are sourced,” agricultural secretary Yap told The Manilla Times. There's no doubt that's true, and important. But there needs to be a hard look at the potential consequences of those gains.