Colombia's bananas could be devastated if fungus arrives

BOGOTA (Reuters) - Banana harvests in Colombia, the world’s fourth-largest exporter, and other Latin American producers could be crippled by the potential arrival of a fungus which withers the crop, a top agricultural official warned on Thursday.

The Fusarium wilt, popularly referred to as Panama disease, attacks the roots of plantain and several varieties of bananas and can prove lethal. It can remain in soil for up to 30 years.

The arrival of the wilt in Latin America could heavily damage banana exports and may put food security in producer countries at risk, Carlos Soto, the head of the Colombian Agricultural Institute said in an interview.

“In the case that the fungus arrives, it’s devastating, it will finish everything,” Soto said. “We’re designing a contingency plan to react in case of an outbreak and before it can spread.”

Colombia is working with Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia to coordinate a response to the disease, Soto added, and will pitch the plan to Central American countries in the coming weeks.

Key to the plan is training for farmers so they can better spot the disease and more intense inspection of agricultural products and migrants at borders, Soto said.

Colombia is an important transit country for Asian and African migrants looking to reach the United States via Central America, often through the north of the country, a principle banana area.

It is possible the disease may already have arrived in Venezuela, Soto said, but it has yet to be detected.

“I’m very worried about Venezuela because there’s no sanitary conditions and that means they could have the fungus and not even know it, and with such a porous border, illegal commerce and migration, it could be dangerous.” Soto said.

Colombia and Venezuela share a partially closed 2,219-kilometer border that is a hub for smuggling and illegal transit.

Fusarium, which discolors leaves, has been detected in Indonesia, China, Philippines, Malaysia, Pakistan, Australia and Mozambique.

Colombia has about 47,000 hectares (116,000 acres) of banana crops and some 400,000 hectares (988,000 acres) of plantain meant for domestic consumption.

In 2015, the country exported 92 million boxes of bananas to the European Union and the United States, valued at $800 million. Colombia is the world’s fourth-largest exporter after Ecuador, Costa Rica and Guatemala.

Reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta; Writing by Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Helen Murphy, G Crosse