Panama Disease

What is panama disease?

Feed your brain... Unpeeling the facts

Panama disease is caused by the fungus Fusarium (the full name is Fusarium oxysporum f. sp. cubense). It is a soil pathogen which infects the root system and goes on to colonise the plant through the vascular system – hyphae of the fungus can even reach the leaves. The disease cannot be controlled or cured other than by soil treatments, which unfortunately have such a detrimental effect on the environment that they are prohibited almost everywhere. Biological methods under development are showing great potential, however. One of the worst effects of Panama disease is the production of so-called chlamydospores , or resting spores, which survive in the soil for decades. As soon as a susceptible banana plant is grown nearby, these spores germinate, infect the plant, and kill it.
In other words, soil that has been contaminated once becomes unfit for future banana production unless resistant varieties are grown. Gros Michel used to be the prime banana cultivar until it succumbed to the historic Panama disease epidemic (the Fusarium strain which affected it is called ‘Race 1’ and is almost omnipresent globally) in Latin America in the 1950s. Banana plantations were completely destroyed, abandoned and started afresh in areas that were still free of Panama disease. However, due to a lack of understanding of Fusarium epidemiology and improper sanitation methods – and even after areas were inundated to kill Fusarium – such new areas were also quickly infested, which resulted in the epidemic spiralling out of control.


Fortunately, a replacement with Fusarium resistance emerged in the early 20th century and banana producers slowly adopted this new cultivar - the Cavendish banana. The price was high, however: Cavendish bananas are delicate in transport and prone to bruising. The chain had to be entirely tailored for its national and international transport. In addition, the taste and size of the Cavendish are inferior to Gros Michel.

The race is on

Since the 1990s a new strain of the Fusarium fungus – the so-called Tropical Race (TR) 4 – has occurred and spread, destroying ten thousands of hectares of plantations of Cavendish bananas.
Farmers in China, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Australia are threatened in their business and livelihoods. Bananas are an important cash-crop for millions of people, enabling them to send children to school and support their families. Panama disease therefore threatens to cause widespread poverty. In addition, Panama disease does not, of course, respect borders. Due to globalisation and the fact that the disease is easily transmitted by soil, water and, probably, air, dissemination of the TR4 Fusarium type to the other important banana production regions (Africa and Latin America) seems to be just a matter of time.

The threat of Panama Disease

An interview with Randy Ploetz (part 1)

History of panama disease

Timeline of events about Panama Disease


Possibilities and research

The problems related to Panama disease are complicated:

The biological issue

Quite simply, despite the world’s best efforts and major investments, scientists still don’t know enough about the biology and genetics of the causative fungus; and the other challenge is the need for greater genetic diversity among banana cultivars. This would prevent the disastrous epidemics that threaten the entire current production.

The environmental issue

Thus, first and foremost, a disease resistant banana is the best basis for a healthy banana.
As long as we keep growing susceptible cultivars, this is labour lost in terms of disease control. Chemicals tend to be too toxic for other soil life to use against this disease and therefore prohibited in most regions, so other solutions must be found. One option is biological soil fumigation, or bio-control based on organisms found in so-called ‘suppressive soils’. While crop diversity in general helps substantially in managing disease outbreaks, Fusarium produces resting spores that survive in soil for decades - in other words, current eradicant measures are needed to control Panama disease.

The human factor

The entire industry involves millions of people directly or indirectly associated with banana production and trade. In Costa Rica alone, nearly 100,000 jobs rely directly or indirectly on banana production – that's about eight percent of the country's total employment. Banana cultivation is characterised by a great variety of producers: Small holders, industrial plantations and back-yard plantings to name a few. In addition to this, many bananas simply grow on the roadside as weeds and plenty are abandoned sick plants that continue to represent potential disease foci. Panama disease therefore acts on different scales: Plant, field, farm, region, country and even continent. State-level & international cooperation and integrated research are indispensable to finding solutions in all of these domains and scales. This requires multilevel solutions, as well as concerted action on the part of all stakeholders as both smallholders and plantation owners suffer from the same problems.
Cooperative research and knowledge exchange on all levels are indispensable. Effective disease management requires concerted action in a complex environment with different geographical and cultural dimensions. National and international regulations and policies are crucial to managing Panama disease and to preventing its dissemination to areas that are still free.
‘Disease resistance is the best basis for a healthy banana’

Research programmes

Here you can find information on Panama disease research programmes and their constituent projects. Growers, researchers, commercial companies and government institutions are working together on crop protection, food security and innovation. This will help to manage the dissemination of the deadly Fusarium fungus and sustain the livelihoods of the millions of people who depend on the banana.

Luud Clercx, about the threat of Panama disease


Has worked for TASTE since 2007. TASTE stands for Technical Assistance for Sustainable Trade & Environment, a foundation run by Agrofair in Barendrecht. Before that, he spent more than 20 years living in Latin-America, working in rural development. Active in the World Banana Forum (WBF) as coordinator of the WBF Task Force TR4.

Quote-open If Panama disease continues to spread, it will have disastrous consequences for both the export sector and for the food security of millions of people. The export sector accounts for 15% of the production. The other 85% of bananas are produced for local consumption. A large proportion of these cultivars, and also cooking bananas, are susceptible to Panama disease. More research is needed to find out which varieties are susceptible, and to what extent. We also need a rough overview of where these vulnerable varieties are grown to analyse the risks and devise plans to prevent the disease from spreading.

It may take quite some time before a resistant variety of banana is developed and will become available on a scale large enough to replace the vulnerable varieties. However, the question is whether a massive replacement is desirable: this would mean a further impoverishment of the great diversity of banana varieties sold on local markets. Wasn’t the narrow genetic base of banana cultivation a main risk factor in the spread of the Panama disease? And will small producers have the means to replant their plots with a resistant variety? It looks like that producers and farming communities in many places will simply have to learn to live with Panama disease. This is where agro-ecological innovation comes in. We have to work on developing new, less one-sided production systems to ensure that the Cavendish and other varieties of banana are less susceptible to Panama disease. Hypotheses about disease suppressive soils seem to be pointing in this direction, but more research still needs to be carried out. Research is also needed into the cost price of a commercial Cavendish banana produced in the TR4 era, in which preventive and possible quarantine measures will be day-to-day practice. Quote-close

‘We have to work on agro-ecological innovations to make varieties less susceptible to Panama disease’

Louise O. Fresco, about the threat of panama disease

President of the Executive Board of Wageningen UR. Former Assistant Director-General, Agriculture, FAO and Professor at the University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

With her wide agricultural experience, particularly in the developing world, she wholeheartedly supports banana research.

Quote-open As mentioned in my recent Science Editorial “The GMO Stalemate in Europe”, the lack of trust in genetically modified organisms reflects a wider distrust of science. This is so unfortunate as, also in case of banana, science should be the driver for change. Clearly banana research is urgently required. The tremendous threat of Panama disease is accelerated by the low genetic diversity of commercial banana crops around the world. This is clearly unsustainable and almost unmanageable. I continue to call for genetic modification of vegetatively propagated crops, such as cassava and banana, as a short-term solution for urgent needs of the poor, particularly when a GM approach is embedded in multidisciplinarity. Therefore, I am truly pleased with the multidisciplinary approach that is taken in this impressive suite of INREF and KNAW-SPIN projects Quote-close

‘I continue to call for genetic modification of vegetatively propagated crops like banana’