From the Editor: Cavendish Variant 218 Becoming the Darling of Cavendish Growers
THE SEARCH for a banana variety that is resistant to the very aggressive Tropical Race 4 (TR4) Fusarium Wilt disease that has been affecting the old Giant Cavendish and Williams varieties has been ongoing since 2005, and the most promising result so far has been the Giant Cavendish Tissue Culture Variant 218 from Taiwan. This variety which was brought to the Philippines under the initiative of Dr. Agustin Molina Jr., then the Regional Coordinator for Asia Pacific of Bioversity International, has become the darling of smallholder as well as big time growers in Mindanao.
Dr. Molina saw an urgent need for a solution because Fusarium Wilt was threatening the banana industry in Mindanao, which has been bringing into the country about US$1 billion a year. The virulent TR4 was first observed in the highland areas in Calinan, Davao City, in 2000, but no one suspected it was TR4. Then sporadic infection occurred in the traditional production areas in the lowlands, particularly Mandug in Davao City, especially around the river that comes from Calinan. By 2005, TR4 had spread and caused more epidemics.
Dr. Molina, a plant pathologist who worked earlier for 10 years in Central America as a senior scientist and later as corporate director of research and technical services at Chiquita Brands International, drew up a plan to attack the problem. The first step was to find out the disease organism that was attacking the Cavendish banana plantations in Mindanao. He was able to confirm that the virulent disease was caused by the Fusarium Wilt Tropical Race 4 (TR4) with the help of a laboratory at Stellenbosch University in South Africa. SMALL FARMERS WORST HIT - By 2010, it was estimated that no less than 3,000 hectares of smallholder Cavendish banana farmers were destroyed by the disease. The big players like Dole and several others had to adopt their own preventive and curative measures, but some 6,000 hectares of the big plantations also suffered from severe infection.
As early as the 1970s, Fusarium Wilt was already in the Philippines but the strain was a mild one that was manageable. By 2005, the virulent TR4 was really causing severe losses.
Much earlier, Dr. Molina said, TR4 had wiped out the Cavendish plantations of Chiquita Brands and other multinationals in Indonesia and Malaysia. They had hoped to produce bananas for the expanding market in the Middle East but they had to abandon their projects because of TR4. AROUSING AWARENESS - After confirming that TR4 was the culprit in the Mindanao Cavendish plantations, Dr. Molina had to raise the awareness of all the stakeholders in the banana industry, including the government, multinational companies, smallholder farmers, NGOs, and research organizations. TBRI TAPPED - Being familiar with what was happening in the banana industry worldwide, Dr. Molina, as a Bioversity coordinator in the Asia Pacific, had to negotiate with the Taiwan Banana Research Institute to share their selections of tissue culture variants that they had used to solve their TR4 Fusarium Wilt problem. He had to employ diplomacy in the framework of the Banana Asia Pacific Network that he coordinated to convince the TBRI to share their varietal selections that could tolerate TR4.
Six TBRI variants were shared with Bioversity International with the Bureau of Plant Industry and UP Los Baños as the repository agencies in the Philippines. Meanwhile, in 2006, Dr. Molina, talked with Lapanday Fruit, one of the big players in the industry, to undertake tissue-culturing of the imported GCTCVs or Giant Cavendish Tissue Culture Variants. Lapanday was only too glad to collaborate and carry out preliminary trials in their infested farms with Dr. Molina because some of the Lapanday farms were also hit by TR4. By 2008, the epidemics had significantly increased. The areas in Mandug were totally destroyed. By that time, all the government agencies and other companies were not yet active in addressing the disease.
Dr. Molina said that by 2011, the industry cried for help as thousands of hectares were already affected (3,000 hectares from small growers and about 6,000 hectares more from the multinationals.) PCAARRD ENGAGED – In 2011, Dr. Molina said that he then engaged PCAARRD (Philippine Council for
Dr. Emily Febregar of Lapanday and Dr. Gus Molina showing a tissue-cultured 218 variety.
On the left is the devastated Lasang Farm of Dole in 2012. On the right is the same place planted to Variant 218. The latter photo was taken in July 2017, when the field was full of robust Variant 218 plants.
A smiling Dr. Molina at the Dole nursery in Carmen, Davao del Norte.
Dr. Molina, Cecilia Donaire, Dr. Estrellieta Aldaba, Zac B. Sarian, and a staff member at Dole’s tissue culture facility.