IAEA combats crop-threatening banana wilt with nuclear technology

January 6, 2022, 3:00PMNuclear News
In 2021, the Fusarium wilt disease continued to spread in banana plantations across South America. (Photo: M.Dita/Biodiversity International, Colombia)

A lethal banana disease, known as the Fusarium wilt or Panama wilt, is spreading rapidly in South America and threatening global supplies of the Cavendish banana, the world’s most popular export variety. Working with experts in the Andean countries of Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru, the IAEA and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) are using irradiation and nuclear-derived techniques to combat, manage, and prevent the spread of the disease. The IAEA describes the work in a December 24 news article.

Bananas are both a food staple and an important cash crop in Latin America countries. According to the FAO, the Cavendish banana represents about 47 percent of global banana production and accounts for almost all banana exports. Colombia, the fifth-largest exporter of bananas in the world, could lose 30,000 jobs and $800 million in export earnings per year if the disease is not controlled quickly.

A pathogen spreads: In late August 2021, experts and authorities from the Andean countries reached out to the IAEA when they discovered the continuing spread of the latest variation of the disease, Tropical Race 4 (TR4). The disease, which has been found in 20 countries over the past decade, was first reported in Latin America in 2019 in Colombia, and in early 2021 in Peru. TR4 is a soil-borne pathogen that can survive for decades in soil and destroy healthy plants.

“When we found that more than 80 hectares of land in Peru and 250 in Colombia had been affected, Bolivia also started to fear that the disease could soon reach its banana plantations,” said Antonio Bustamante, a research technician at the National Institute of Agricultural Research in Ecuador, the country that exports the most bananas worldwide. “It became clear to us, as a community, that our countries need specialized assistance through nuclear techniques and related biotechnologies to overcome the disease and stop its spread in the Latin American region.”

IAEA director general Rafael Mariano Grossi said, “When the Andean community reached out to us, we were aware that the condition is serious and that we should use our nuclear expertise to stop any further spread of the disease.”

Emergency action: The IAEA and the FAO put together an emergency technical cooperation project to strengthen international capacity to prevent and contain the disease through surveillance, early detection, genetic resistance, and integrated management.

“We use irradiation to modify the plant material to develop disease-resistant varieties, as well as use the nuclear-derived technique of polymerase chain reaction or DNA sequencing to detect the disease and stop its spread,” explained Najat Mokhtar, IAEA deputy director general and head of the Nuclear Sciences and Applications Department.

Innovative research and development activities conducted over the past seven years at the IAEA through the Joint FAO/IAEA Centre of Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture make the program possible, and ongoing studies in cell and tissue culture are expected to accelerate the pace of developing genetic resistance in bananas, according to the IAEA.

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