Indian scientists find a cure for dreaded Panama Disease

They have manufactured a biopesticide using a fungus to prevent the disease in banana plants

By Meenakshi Sushma
Published: Wednesday 09 September 2020

The scientists of Indian Council of Agriculture Research or ICAR, have found a cure for one of the most dreaded agricultural diseases. The fungal disease, called Fusarium Wilt, is popularly known as the ‘Panama Disease’ and afflicts banana plants. For the first time, Indian scientists have brought out a biopesticide that can control the disease. This biopesticide has been made using another fungus.

For a long time, banana cultivators have been struggling with the Panama Disease. This disease affects the Cavendish variety or the G9 Banana cultivar, which is the most widely grown banana in the world.

In India, more than 60 per cent of bananas are of the G9 variety. They go by names like ‘Grand Naine’, ‘Robusta’, ‘Bhusaval’, ‘Basrai’ and ‘Shrimanth’. Farmers in at least four Indian states — Bihar, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh — have been badly affected by this disease. All these are areas where the Cavendish variety is grown.

Why is the disease so deadly? Panama Disease is caused by a fungus with a long and complicated name called Fusarium Oxysporum f. Sp cubense. One of its strains which is called ‘Tropical Race 4’ or ‘TR4’ is creating the most havoc, threatening almost 80 per cent of the global banana production. 

The disease is so deadly that it is sometimes referred to as ‘banana cancer’. The fungus resides below ground and infects the plant through its roots. The infection then stops water and essential nutrients from being transported to the rest of the plant.

The leaves begin to wilt, and the stem of the plant starts turning dark brownish before the plant dies. If one plant gets it, then it is most likely that an entire plantation can be wiped out.

In 2017, a major disease outbreak was reported from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. It was then the  ICAR’s Central Soil Salinity Research Institute, along with the National Research Centre for Bananas, Central Institute of Sub-Horticulture, decided to tackle this problem.

It was found that ICAR scientists had already developed a herbicide that was effective for Fusarium Wilt in tomatoes and chillies. The scientists decided that they would modify this formulation to tackle Panama Disease in bananas.  

In 2018, the field trials of this new bio-fungicide began. It was called ‘ICAR FUSCIONT’ which was made from a novel strain of fungi called ‘Trichoderma EC’.  This fungicide can control the Fusarium fungi from multiplying and affecting the roots. It also adds to the immunity of the banana plant. The fungicide needs to be applied at regular intervals during the crop cycle of the banana plant, which is for 14-16 months.  

Banana cultivation is very profitable for Indian farmers. On average, a farmer can earn Rs 4 lakh from an acre. But Panama Disease can significantly decrease the yield and profits of the farmers by half. 

The results of the experiments have been very encouraging. Many farmers, who Down to Earth spoke with, said this new fungicide has been a god-send. They have seen their banana plantation revive in less than three months.  

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