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Why ‘matoke’ could soon be off the menu

FAO warns spread of deadly panama disease likely to cause extinction of a popular banana variety

Matoke, the staple meal of many Kenyans, particularly the Abagusii community, is facing potential extinction,  the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has warned.

FAO and experts have raised the red flag over a deadly fungal banana disease that is sweeping across the globe and posing serious danger to one of the most widely consumed fruits.

The Agricultural, Fisheries and Food Authority (AFFA) is linking the decline of production of bananas in Kisii, Meru, and other areas to the panama disease (Fusariuåm wilt).

Its spread is termed as the “second coming” after it successfully exterminated Gros Michel cultivar variety in 1965.

This is bad news to lovers of bananas, especially the cavendish cultivar variety, which is popular for its taste but is also high in potassium, contains protein and can even help lower blood pressure.

Apart from nutritional value, the banana is an important source of income and food security among smallholders and large-scale farmers.

According to AFFA, the area under banana in Kenya was 52,102 hectares in 2014 with a total production of 1.43 million tonnes valued at Sh18.16 billion.

Leading counties in banana production are Meru (14 per cent), Kirinyaga (12 per cent), Embu (10 per cent), Bungoma (eight per cent), Taita Taveta ( seven per cent) Kisii ( seven per cent), and Murang’a (six per cent).

The authority highlighted challenges in banana production to the prevalence of insect pests and diseases.

“The panama disease is caused by a soil-borne fungus and has led to the decline of production of bananas in Kisii and other areas,” AFFA said.

FAO expressed the need for a global effort to prevent the rapid spread of the disease, which poses a severe threat to the economies and food security of many in developing countries.

Mass deaths

“Plant scientists have been warning for several years that the world’s most popular banana variety, the Cavendish, has fallen victim to a new strain of the fungus causing wilting and mass plant die-offs,” FAO stated.

 The pathogen affects the plant’s vascular system, preventing it from picking up water.

Since its “second coming,” TP4 has spread to South-East Asia, then across thousands of miles of open ocean to Australia and finally, in 2013, to Africa.

The drop in production has also been attributed to low productivity in areas that don’t have access to irrigation, especially Murang’a and Bungoma.

Counties with increased production, according to AFFA, could be attributed to access to water for irrigation, adoption of superior varieties, availability of clean planting material from Tissue Culture technology and exposure of farmers to modern agronomic practices.

Bananas also face the threat of Bacteria Wilt Disease (BW) while other major challenges include poor marketing channels and market structure.

Export variety

“Despite the challenges, appropriate interventions such as the provision of clean planting material through the tissue culture technology and capacity building in crop husbandry have significantly minimised the impact of pest and diseases although not widely adopted,” said AFFA.

There are hundreds of banana varieties in the world, but the Cavendish alone accounts for nearly all exports globally.

The fears of Cavendish going extinct evokes the memory of Gros Michel, a cultivar that was exterminated in 1965.

Cavendish

It tasted better, lasted longer, was more resilient and didn’t require artificial ripening.

Gros Michel was declared commercially extinct due to the Panama disease, which started from Central America and quickly spread to most of the world’s commercial banana plantations.

The banana industry was in deep crisis and had to look for alternatives.

It settled on the Cavendish cultivar, which was deemed an inferior product but had the distinction of being immune to the disease.

Banana growers worldwide quickly adopted it but it now faces the same fate as that of its predecessor.

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