PRODUCTION of Cavendish bananas, the main export variety, remains threatened by Fusarium wilt or Panama disease, likely dampening exports, according to the Pilipino Banana Growers and Exporters Association (PBGEA).

“For the first three months, our production was even worse than last year. We’re kind of worried that maybe at the end of this year, we might not be able to contribute even $1 billion,” PBGEA Executive Director Stephen A. Antig told BusinessWorld in a virtual interview.

Citing the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA), the total land area planted to banana was 442,894 hectares last year, with 84,328 hectares dedicated to Cavendish, which is cultivated in large plantations for efficiency.

Mr. Antig said that about 15,000 banana plantations were hit by the disease, while the Department of Agriculture is currently monitoring the affected land area to arrive at a production estimate.

Fusarium wilt is a soil-borne fungal disease that is attaches to banana plants, blocking the plant’s vascular system and depriving it of minerals, nutrients, and moisture. Affected plants turn yellow until they die.

“When you’re hit with this disease, it will stay in the soil as long as 30 years. Habang nandiyan siya sa soil (while it is in the soil), you cannot plant the same varieties because they will be destroyed,” Mr. Antig said.

Mar de Guzman, officer-in-charge of Plant Health and Pest Status Section in the Bureau of Plant Industry, said that the Fusarium wilt strain called Tropical Race 4 (TR4) was first recorded in Davao City in 2009.

So far, this fungal strain is only present in the Mindanao region. Other types of Fusarium wilt have also been detected in the Cordillera Administrative Region (CAR), the Cavite, Laguna, Batangas, Rizal, Quezon region (Calabarzon), the Mindoro, Marinduque, Romblon, Palawan, region (Mimaropa), the Central Visayas, the Eastern Visayas, and the South Cotabato, Cotabato, Sultan Kudarat, Sarangani, and General Santos (Soccskargen) region.

Iniiwasan natin ’yong kumalat ’yong Tropical Race 4, so nagkaroon tayo ng quarantine measures at least hindi makaaabot sa Luzon (We’re trying to quarantine TR4 so it does not hit Luzon),” he said via Facebook Messenger chat.

Last year, banana output was 9.013 million metric tons (MMT) which was the lowest since 2020 when the Philippines produced 9.056 MMT, according to the PSA.

Banana exports totaled 2.24 MMT in 2022, down 6.21%, according to preliminary data from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

Baka nga ma-swerte na kami to hit 2 million (MT) (We would be lucky to hit 2 million MT) this year,” Mr. Antig said.

The value of banana exports dipped to $1.09 billion from $1.14 billion in the previous year, the FAO said.

“In 2022, the value of the total exports was about $1.09 billion, medyo maliit ’yun, bumagsak ’yun (that is small and reflects a sharp decline). I would say our peak season was in 2019,” said Mr. Antig.

In 2019, the volume of exports was 4.35 MMT, valued at about $1.95 billion, according to the FAO.

Guatemala recently surpassed the Philippines as the number two banana exporter in the world with 2.45 MMT in 2022.

“The only way to survive in this industry is if you’re big and the reason for that is because most of the production costs are fixed,” Mr. Antig said.

According to Mr. Antig, small and medium-sized banana producers who cannot rehabilitate their land or those who do not have easy access to financing either abandon bananas or shift to other commodities resistant to the disease such as coffee, cacao, and corn.

“We are actually trying to develop a new variety that it resistant to the Fusarium wilt but so far we have not really been successful in producing or developing one that is totally resistant,” he said.

He called for the establishment of a research center to combat the disease.

“For the last 10-11 years since we discovered this outbreak of Fusarium wilt, we have been pestering the government to put up a research center because on our own we cannot afford to establish one,” Mr. Antig said.

He said legislators attempted several times to file a bill seeking to establish a banana research institute. “Probably hindi nakita ng ibang mambabatas (Other legislators failed to see its) importance to Mindanao, that’s why it did not pass first reading.”

The Davao Region accounts for about 36% of total banana production with 3.29 MMT in 2022, Mr. Antig said. — Sheldeen Joy Talavera