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Nov 29, 2019

BAHA Tests Out its Containment Plans for TR4

In Thursday night’s newscast we showed you a part of BAHA’s plans to keep the deadly banana and plantain disease out of Belize. The preparation, as we reported, includes surveillance and containment simulation exercises to test the country’s readiness should the disease be detected here. While it is not a new disease, a recent detection in the Americas has put the region on high alert because the varieties of banana we have in Belize are susceptible to the fungal infection.  So, BAHA is reviewing its plans from surveillance to containment and on Thursday they carried out an exercise at a banana farm in the south so that they can improve Belize’s prevention plan. As you may know, there is no cure for the disease and the best defense is prevention. The TR4 is called by many as the worst banana and plantain disease of this century that is because it can cripple entire industries and it spreads very fast. Reporter Andrea Polanco tells us more about BAHA’s containment simulation.


Emir Cruz, Managing Director, BAHA

“Bio Security. Bio Security. Bio Security.”


Andrea Polanco, Reporting

That’s at the heart of the Belize Agricultural Health Authority’s simulation to test readiness to contain the Fusarium Oxysporum Tropical Race Four, also called the TR4. It’s a fungal disease that affects bananas and plantains. It causes affected plant leaves to become yellow and wilted and the plant stops bearing and dies. Fungicides can’t control the TR4 nor can fumigants get rid of it from the soil. If the disease is not contained quickly on a farm, it can wipe out an entire industry.


Emir Cruz

Emir Cruz

“The banana industry as we know it today would not be here if this comes in. The technical people have said that this disease moves one hundred kilometers per year. The whole banana belt is within a hundred kilometers; so one year and everything would be infected.”


And that eighty-million dollar industry can collapse if it ever becomes infected with the TR4. The foreign exchange earnings and trade opportunities would disappear. It will also take with it the livelihoods of many Belizeans. The idea of not ever having a fried plantain with your rice and beans is also very real. So, this potential banana and plantain devastation is something that not even the industry players want to think about.


Elroy Foreman

Elroy Foreman, GM Sigatoka Deparment, Banana Growers Association

“It would be a major blow, so our thing is not even to think of getting the disease to Belize because it will be a big setback for the industry. So, the attitude, the spirit is prevention.”


So, to prevent it from getting into Belize, BAHA carried out a simulation of a TR4 case on a banana and plantain farm in the banana belt.  The scenario is this – agriculture officials have received word that a plant is showing signs of TR4. So, they must test to confirm this case; destroy the diseased plants and contain this deadly fungus to the area where it is found. These preventive steps start at the farm gate.  All vehicles and inside floor mats, occupants’ footwear, as well tools, going onto the farm are disinfected. Once on the farm, everyone puts on protective gear and goes through another bio-security station. When on the plantation, the technician inspects the suspected diseased plants, gathers data and attaches an identifying marker. A lab team extracts a small sample from the suspected plant and carries out a series of sanitization and security measures of tools used. That sample is secured and carefully labeled and stored to be tested. Confirmation of the deadly fungus sets off a series of immediate containment steps in this red zone. The plant is cut down and chopped into small pieces and then stored in bags with urea and white lime to act on the fungus. All other plants within the plot are also destroyed because those are infected, too. The sample area is sealed up; clothing is discarded here and the plot is covered up because it can no longer be used to plant bananas and plantains, for the simple fact that the disease lives in the soil for thirty to forty years.


Francisco Gutierrez

Francisco Gutierrez, Plant Health Director, BAHA

“Today was a practice run for us to gauge where our weaknesses, our little mistakes, for us to be able to tweak that and tune it. So, the basic principle behind the approach is that you come in clean and you leave clean, so that you do not move the fungal organism to another area.”


Emir Cruz

“Because there is no room for error in this particular case.”


There are as many as seven different ways that this fungus spreads; the two most common ways are by infected planting material and the movement of contaminated soil. While the disease is not in Belize, the threat is real. With the TR4 now in Colombia, if strong surveillance and preventive measures are not implemented, it can be just a matter of time.


Francisco Gutierrez

“If it gets into Central America, it becomes even worse because we do depend on labour from Central America. So, the whole region is on alert. How bad? It has happened before. In the 1920’s-1960’s there was a similar epidemic but of Fusarium Race 1. It is another variant, present all over the Americas. It killed the banana variety at the time known as the Gros Michelle, it disappeared. It killed the industry all over Central and South America. They had to shift to a new variety, which is the Cavendish type that we have. But the devastation was so huge.   If it happens once then it can happen again because this variant kills even plantains; the first one didn’t but this one does. It kills everything; bananas, plantains, commercial bananas, everything. So, we are extremely worried. It is extremely serious.”


And it’s that seriousness that has prompted banana farmers to also do their part to protect their farms.


Elroy Foreman

“All growers are very much preparing themselves and putting in place some level of bio-security measures already. A major one is limiting people to come to the farm. Before we would have suppliers who come direct to the farm and offer products to the farm, that has stopped; now they just reach as far as the association. Before, when all local persons come to the farm before to sell stuff those things are banned now.”


BAHA will be reviewing this simulation and the other exercises carried out this week. Surveillance and apublic education campaign will be a part of the next steps to help keep TR4 out of Belize. Reporting for News Five, I’m Andrea Polanco.

Viewers please note: This Internet newscast is a verbatim transcript of our evening television newscast. Where speakers use Kriol, we attempt to faithfully reproduce the quotes using a standard spelling system.

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