Supply of bananas secure amid fears of disease: AVA

SINGAPORE - Singapore's fresh banana supply is stable, the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) has said in response to global concerns that a lethal banana-plant disease has spread from Asia to the Middle East and Africa.

A spokesman for the AVA said Singapore imports its fresh bananas from various places such as India, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Thailand.

Worries about the supply of the popular fruit have risen after the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) said on Monday that the Panama disease had spread from Asia to Mozambique and Jordan. FAO plant pathologist Fazil Dusunceli said countries had to act now to avoid the "massive destruction of much of the world's banana crop".

The fungal infection, which is lethal to banana plants, has caused losses to crops in Indonesia, China, Malaysia, the Philippines and Australia since the 1990s.

It is transmitted through the soil, first attacking a plant's roots before spreading through the plant. The disease prevents an infected plant from transporting water and nutrients to its parts, which causes it to wilt and die.

Infected plants are either unable to grow and bear fruit, or bear low-quality bananas that are stunted and not marketable.

The TR4 strain of the disease is one of the world's most destructive, and the popular Cavendish variety of banana is particularly vulnerable. It can survive in the soil for a long time, and if banana plants are re-planted in that soil, they, too, could be infected.

Most of the fresh bananas sold here are of the Cavendish variety, the AVA said.

The Cavendish and many other commercial variants are seedless clones unable to evolve resistance against diseases, which evolve faster than new fungicides can be developed.

So researchers around the world are working to develop new varieties that can withstand the disease, and protect the genetic diversity of bananas for a reserve of genetic material.

Bananas are the fourth most important food crop for the world's least developed countries, said the FAO.

According to data from the United Nations Comtrade database, Singapore's imports of fresh and dried bananas including plantains have risen slightly over the last decade.

In 2012, the last year for which figures are available, Singapore imported 44,592 tonnes of bananas and exported about 263 tonnes. This was 7 per cent more than the 41,585 tonnes it imported in 2011, of which a smaller amount - 166 tonnes - was exported, meaning Singapore is keeping more bananas for its own consumption.

The 2012 figures also represented a 27 per cent rise from the 35,070 tonnes of bananas imported in 2004, of which 229 tonnes were exported.

This article was published on April 17 in The Straits Times.

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