Plants killed by BXW, arguably today's deadliest banana disease.
Close up: bacterial discharge from a banana plant.
Note to readers: This is a long post, based on news reports from the past week. I think it's important - please, if you can, read it, and pass it on. Thanks.
In the months since I've been publishing this blog - and in the now six months since my book has come out - this is probably the most serious and important item I've posted. In the past week, new reports of the spread of what is the most deadly banana disease facing the crop right now - banana xanthomonas wilt (BXW) - have appeared in the African news media.
For the first time, the disease has appeared in Kenya. BXW moves easily - it can be transmitted in dirt, by people, on tools, or even by birds. It has so far appeared in the Teso, Busia, Malaba, Chakol, and Busia districts of the nation, all near the Ugandan border. Once it shows up in a banana plantation, it is likely spread by insects.
In Uganda, meanwhile, the disease has become so widespread that yields on banana farms have reached dangerously low levels. Acres and acres of crops have been lost, creating a cascade of economic losses in a trading system that spreads from the tiniest villages to Uganda's cities, all based on the transport and trade of bananas.
The urgency of this cannot be overstated. Uganda and the nations surrounding it absolutely depend on bananas as a staple foodstuff. Millions rely on bananas for survival. And the spread of BXW into Kenya is yet another indicator that this deadly disease is on the march. As with Panama Disease - the wilting fungus that threatens our banana, the Cavendish - BXW (a bacterial malady) is incurable. The difference between the two is that BXW moves faster and threatens, right now, food supplies in nations with fragile governments.
What's to be done? Two things. And I'm going to say some stuff that might disturb that regular readers of this blog, especially those who know that I take a very hard line when it comes to corporate skullduggery directed banana workers in South and Central America. In this case, I'm going to veer away from what is traditionally seen as a related "socially responsible" stance.
FIRST, banana diversity. In order to mitigate the spread of disease, the number of kinds of bananas being grown needs to be increased. But there's a real disconnect in the world of food security - that means the organizations that help manage and alleviate hunger - when it comes to bananas. A lot of them don't know how important bananas are; those that do don't pay a lot of attention to how important funding the preservation of banana diversity (and banana research in general) is. There's just not enough time or money being spent on bananas compared to other staple crops. And let's not even get into whether or not the big banana companies care to fund research that might recognize the importance of saving the sister breeds of the one they make billions on: many - if not most - banana executives don't even know that subsistence bananas exist (or that they might help in reverse, since they could contain genetic material that could help save the Cavendish, which is also threatened by disease.
SECOND, genetic engineering: It is time for the general public to recognize that working at the DNA level is not always a corporate trojan horse into destroying local agriculture and contaminating the environment. This isn't all about Monsanto. While consumers in the suburbs and Whole Foods stores protest against all GMO foods - while barely knowing what GMO is - they bluntly prevent out legitimate public research that might stop hunger. Time learn that everything has nuance, the disease that are killing the bananas: they work in just two modes: off - and on.
About the images and BXW: the first shot shows a plantation that has been destroyed by BXW. The leaves of the banana plant have turned black and yellow, and then wilted altogether. Without leaves, the banana plant dies. Another key point: in village agriculture, the death of a banana tree can mean a cascade of disaster in a family's diet, because other staple foods grow in the shade the tree creates. The second image shows bacterial material oozing from the plant itself.
Even if you think genetic engineering sucks, you should write to Fernando Aguirre, the CEO of Chiquita, and ask him to fund global banana research. This is the address:
250 E. Fifth Street
Cincinnati OH 45202 USA
You will probably get a form letter in reply unless you include a line in there that says something like: "I challenge you not to include a form letter in reply." You might also include printouts from the below links, or a printout of this blog entry.
Here's a link on the Kenya spread. Here's a link on the Uganda crisis. Here's a link to Bioversity International, the group that coordinates banana research worldwide. You can learn a lot more there. Things are really moving quickly now when it comes to saving the banana - but they aren't hopeless. The keys, again: Diversity. Conservation. Research.
Images via the British Society for Plant Pathology