Banana bug fears spread

Grow­ers brace as test points to new or­deal

Townsville Bulletin - - NEWS - JOHN AN­DER­SEN Re­gional Ed­i­tor john.an­der­sen@news.com.au

THE banana in­dus­try is brac­ing for an­other long wait to hear con­clu­sively if the po­ten­tially crop- de­stroy­ing Panama dis­ease has struck again in the Tully River Val­ley.

The Aus­tralian Banana Grow­ers Coun­cil says it will be at least an­other three weeks be­fore a con­clu­sive test re­sult of the lat­est sus­pi­cious sam­ples is con­firmed.

Grow­ers fear the worst. For many it is a case of if it looks like Panama dis­ease, it prob­a­bly is Panama dis­ease.

It’s been two years since the soil- borne, fun­gal dis­ease, also known as Panama Trop­i­cal Race 4, was first found on a farm just a few kilo­me­tres from where the lat­est sus­pect sam­ples were dis­cov­ered.

Grow­ers were hop­ing that mea­sures they had taken in the form of the fenc­ing of farms to stop hu­man, mech­a­nised and even an­i­mal tres­pass might have kept the fun­gus at bay.

Strin­gent pro­to­cols in­volv­ing the chem­i­cal wash­ing of ma­chin­ery and footwear at farm gates were also put in place as part of the over­all cam­paign to stop the spread of Panama dis­ease.

Now, the hopes that these mea­sures might have served as a bar­rier to stop the fun­gus in­fect­ing soils through­out the rich farm­lands of the Tully Val­ley are all but shat­tered.

The ABGC is urg­ing grow­ers to ramp up their on- farm biose­cu­rity pro­to­cols even fur­ther af­ter a first pos­i­tive test for the dis­ease last week.

“The ini­tial molec­u­lar test has come back pos­i­tive. It will be four to six weeks be­fore the de­fin­i­tive test re­sults are known,” ABGC chair­man Stephen Lowe said. “Nonethe­less, grow­ers need to pro­tect their farms as this TR4 risk is not go­ing away.”

A tree which ini­tially aroused sus­pi­cion on the farm owned by the Mackay fam­ily at Tully looked like it was af­fected by Panama dis­ease.

It was enough to trig­ger the lat­est out­break scare that has the $ 900 mil­lion in­dus­try quak­ing in its boots.

Like most grow­ers, David Singh, who farms in the Kennedy Val­ley be­tween Card­well and Tully, says it is mat­ter of see­ing what hap­pens. If it is a worst- case sce­nario, the banana in­dus­try will have to adapt to sur­vive. It could mean the cul­ti­va­tion of new va­ri­eties.

Mr Singh has no great fear of change, but like his coun­ter­parts he does have con­cerns about the con­se­quences change might bring.

Farm­ers grow Wil­liams Cavendish bananas be­cause they are highly pro­duc­tive in terms of vol­ume.

Mr Singh said what the in­dus­try did not know was if the pub­lic would ac­cept dif­fer­ent tast­ing bananas if it punted Wil­liams Cavendish in favour of other va­ri­eties.

There is also the fact that chang­ing to dif­fer­ent va­ri­eties would al­most cer­tainly mean a fall in pro­duc­tion vol­umes.

This would spark a rise in the cost of in­puts which in turn would drive up prices at the su­per­mar­ket.

And if it all does go pear­shaped in terms of banana pro­duc­tion vol­umes and buyer re­sis­tance, what then?

The an­swer to that ques­tion is the one no grower wants to hear. It is that the Fed­eral Gov­ern­ment might al­low the im­por­ta­tion of bananas from The Philip­pines.

If that hap­pens, many grow­ers feel it could be case of ‘ good night, Irene’ for the Queens­land banana in­dus­try.

Mr Singh said Panama dis­ease was able to be man­aged and pro­duc­tion quo­tas met in Asian coun­tries where the dis­ease is en­demic be­cause there is less mech­a­ni­sa­tion.

He said Aus­tralian farms were highly mech­a­nised and that the con­stant move­ment of ma­chin­ery was the ma­jor threat in terms of try­ing to con­trol Panama’s spread.

Mr Lowe said Biose­cu­rity Queens­land took sam­ples for di­ag­nos­tic test­ing over the past week in a Bris­bane lab­o­ra­tory.

“There will be no im­pact what­so­ever on fruit sold to con­sumers, whether the re­sult is con­firmed as pos­i­tive or not. There is also no ex­pec­ta­tion that sup­ply will be chal­lenged,” Mr Lowe said.

GROW­ERS NEED TO PRO­TECT THEIR FARMS AS THIS TR4 RISK IS NOT GO­ING AWAY AUS­TRALIAN BANANA GROW­ERS COUN­CIL CHAIR­MAN STEPHEN LOWE

Pic­ture: ALIX SWEENEY

PRO­DUC­TIVE: David Singh on his banana farm south of Tully.

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