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NT ban bins bananas



February 11, 2015


Banana home growers in Darwin must destroy all banana plants in their gardens in a government program to contain the banana freckle outbreak. But is this really necessary?

Banana freckle (Phyllosticta cavendishii) is a fungal disease that covers the fruit and leaves with tiny black speckles and gives them a rough, sandpapery feel as the spores of the fungus mature on the skin’s surface. As soon as the spores come into contact with water – rain, dew or irrigation – the spores are released and travel on to infect a new host. Banana freckle can also be spread by dividing up and planting contaminated plants.

However, it is not a pathological disease, as it disfigures rather than damages the fruit ie the skin looks a bit manky but the fruit inside is fine to eat.

The NT Department of Primary Industry and Fisheries has identified 6 Red Zones, from Darwin city to the the Tiwi Islands, where all banana plants must be destroyed. Phase 1, which requires the destruction and removal of all banana plants within the first group of target areas began in November 2014. All banana plants must be removed in Darwin by April 2015.

However several local horticulturists have questioned the eradication plan, saying it’s an over-reaction to a small problem, and that it’s really about the Australian banana industry trying to prevent the importation of bananas from the Philippines. Banana freckle is widespread in the Philippines and is the reason given why banana imports from there have not yet been approved by the Australian Government. Critics of the eradication program say that if the Australian banana industry isn’t seen to come down hard on the disease in NT, it weakens its arguments against Filipino imports. And the result is that in NT, commercial and home gardeners growing bananas have to suffer unfairly. (More on this angle at ABC Rural).

As one local NT horticulturist puts it:

“This disease ‘freckle’ has been in bananas in the NT for probably forty or fifty years or more. It apparently is also present in Queensland, although the QDPI has refused to do a survey there to assess this. The action being take is to remove all bananas in certain areas of the NT (by no means all, since several minor towns and aboriginal settlements are excluded). These are being removed, whether diseased or not, from commercial producers, rural small farms, private residential gardens – the lot. The principle being proposed is “If there are no banana plants, there is no banana problem”. The Australian Banana Growers council is providing $50 million from growers levies to finance this operation, which is meeting a fair amount of resistance, naturally enough. The disease does not affect the quality of the fruit, just the appearance, which in most cases is a dense scattering of freckles on the fruit. Severe cases, usually due to neglect, can look more serious, and can lower production rates in commercial plantations. It can be controlled by fungicide spraying – and in fact probably is controlled that way in Queensland.

So that is how we see it up here – no doubt the banana freckle advisors see it differently. If so they have failed to convince people that it is appropriate to cut down healthy plants.”

As banana freckle cannot survive without a live host, decomposing material from cut down plants can be composted and the remaining stumps injected with herbicide to prevent regrowth. This can also create problems by affecting any other plants growing in the vicinity, since the poison doesn’t seem to degrade very quickly, and there have been reports of damage done to whole areas of garden near where the bananas are cut down.

After the Phase 1 destruction, there will be Phase 2 when no banana plants can be grown, followed by Phase 3 when ‘approved cultivars’ can be replanted.

Find out more about the eradication program at NT Department of Industry Tourism and Trade website

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