By Jenina P. Ibañez, Reporter

SMALL FARMERS in the southern Philippine island of Mindanao skipped meals during prolonged droughts and typhoons as crop yields fell. Some of them were forced to sell their pigs, goats and cows, while others had to borrow money while cutting down on food on the table.

Many of them got mired in debt after warmer temperatures killed their crops, according to a 2017 study in the Journal of Rural Studies. Banana producers lost income after rain and drought caused an outbreak, it said.

BW Bullseye 2020-focusNow, a global coronavirus pandemic has made it even more difficult for them, especially the country’s banana growers, as demand from China — its top buyer of the fruit — wanes.

Local companies may be shuttered due to reduced demand from China, where the virus first emerged, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Gladys M. Garcia, executive director of the Mindanao Banana Farmers and Exporters Association said by telephone.

“China is our top banana destination,” she said in Filipino. “Local exporters won’t do well if the Chinese economy is not doing good.”

Fresh banana exports fell by 6.4% to $618.57 million in the first four months of the year from a year earlier. In April alone, banana exports dropped by 28% to $129 million.

The value of banana exports accounted for 66% of the total value of fruit and vegetable exports that month, or 4.65% of total Philippine commodity exports.

Even before the pandemic, local banana farmers have had to contend with global warming and the Panama disease or Fusarium wilt spreading across farms in the Davao Region.

In the long term, climate could affect the industry’s recovery.

The value of Philippine banana exports rose by 39.7% to $1.9 billion last year from a year earlier, accounting for 70% of fruit and vegetable exports and 39% of total agriculture exports, according to the Philippine Statistics Authority. But volume fell by 2.1% to 9.16 million metric tons.

Typhoon Bopha (locally named Pablo) in 2012 wiped out banana plantations in Davao and knocked the Philippines off its spot as the second-biggest banana exporter in the world, said Dennis S. Sia, chief executive officer of banana exporter Technofarm Agricultural & Aquatic, Inc.

Global banana yields could fall by 2050 if the global warming trend persists, according to Newsweek, citing a study published in the journal Nature Climate Change in September. The impact will be most pronounced in 10 countries, including major exporters such as Panama, Guatemala, Costa Rica and the Philippines.

Bananas could wilt if the temperature rises to more than 38°C, Domingo E. Angeles, a professor at the University of the Philippines Los Baños Institute of Crop Science, said in an e-mail.

“When the plant wilts, the leaf area decreases and eventually photosynthesis decreases,” he said. “These lead to stunted growth, delay in flowering and lower yield.”

The average temperature in tropical, banana-growing areas is 27°C, and bananas, which develop at 21°C to 31°C, can survive minor temperature increases. But once it exceeds 40°C, the plant can die.

The annual mean temperature in the Philippines would probably rise by as much as 1.1°C during the decade, and by as much as 2.2°C by the middle of the century, according to the local weather bureau.

Erratic rainfall could also mean dry spells that cause wilting or morning rain that prevents growers from spraying crops against diseases, Mr. Angeles said.

Bananas also hate strong winds. “Due to climate change, typhoons similar to the strength of Pablo may cross Mindanao and adversely affect production,” he said.

Scientists have turned to genetic modification, which can selectively enhance or suppress certain characteristics of bananas. The aim is to protect bananas from the Panama disease, and scientists are working on creating bananas that can tolerate drought.

Maria Emilia Rita G. Fabregar, who heads a technical committee of the Pilipino Banana Growers and Exporters Association, Inc. said a drought-induced insect infestation last year cut the country’s banana export volume, and the rain that came after caused wilting from fungi.

The group has been manually selecting good bananas from the field, said Ms. Fabregar, who is also research and development head at Lapanday Foods Corp.

“Genetic modification is a no-no because our markets abhor it,” she said in an e-mail, noting that it’s still viewed suspiciously even if potential health and environmental risks are controversial.

Mr. Sia said the government must work with the industry to identify new areas to grow the crop and provide a better irrigation system. Banana output could drop by as much as 15% in the next decade if nothing is done, he added.

Ms. Fabregar said the government should build more irrigation canals, and the private sector should adopt “climate-smart” strategies in their irrigation system and cropping patterns.

Former Agriculture Undersecretary Segfredo S. Serrano said the government must invest in research to improve the crop. Unlike big companies that can easily shift to a different crop or industry, small banana farmers can’t when global warming cuts their output, he said in an interview.

“The smaller ones will be obliterated because they can’t improve their crops,” he said. “They don’t have the resources or the expertise.”

Before the coronavirus pandemic, China was a lucrative market for Philippine bananas. Companies were also interrelated, with smaller ones supplying big exporters.

Mr. Serrano said the country had bounced back as a top global exporter, but the industry now faces typhoons, diseases and pests. “It could take years to recover — that’s the top industry worry.”

The impact of climate is more than financial. The cultural knowledge that farmers had passed on for generations may be lost after the planting cycle is disrupted.

“Long-term creeping losses such as malnutrition, disruption to education and loss of culture can have lasting impacts on the welfare of smallholder communities,” according to the study in the Journal of Rural Studies.

“Eroding cultural knowledge and practices associated with harvesting and planting cycles are significant and comparable losses to physical and economic losses that can undermine or reduce capacity to adapt to future disasters,” it added.