The Philippines and Australia are in a joint fight against plant disease

AUSSIE DIPLOMACY MATTERS - Steven J. Robinson (The Philippine Star) - August 16, 2019 - 12:00am

You may not know this, but Australia and the Philippines are together battling an enemy that lies beneath our feet. If we lose this fight, it could destroy one of the most important farming products for the Philippines and other countries – bananas.

The Philippines is the world’s sixth largest banana exporter. Australia also produces bananas, which are always a favourite fruit in Australian households – so much so that people from Queensland, where most of our bananas are grown, have been given the fond nick-name ‘banana benders’.

The enemy is the so-called ‘Panama Disease’, a fungus in soil that starves banana plants of water and causes the leaves to turn yellow, wilt and die. The disease wiped out the Malaysian Cavendish banana sector in the 1990s. It has since spread to other countries and poses serious risks to jobs and industry.

When the disease first appeared in local farms here almost 15 years ago, the Philippine and Australian governments worked together to contain its spread. That battle continues today. The biggest challenge with Panama Disease is that it spreads so easily. It clings to the bottom of boots, farm equipment, and through water. Wandering farm and feral animals can spread it. 

But scientists from Australia and the Philippines have worked out ways to slow down the spread of the disease. Drawing on Australian research, they are deploying three techniques: First, boosting biosecurity measures to stop the disease spreading from farm to farm. Second, planting ‘cover crops’ in between banana plots to reduce the movement of soil. And third, planting varieties of Cavendish bananas that are at least partially resistant to Panama Disease.

Dr. Cesar Limbaga, of the University of Southeastern Philippines, has worked with Australian agricultural scientists for several years in the battle against Panama Disease. His main partner is the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research, or ACIAR, my country’s top organisation leading global agriculture research and cooperation. Dr. Limbaga’s role is to help farmers understand how the disease spreads, so they are better able to prevent it from doing so. 

For the past five years, ACIAR has worked with Filipino researchers and banana farmers in Davao del Norte to hold back the spread of Panama Disease. So far, their efforts are paying off. The spread of the disease has slowed and more work is underway to give small holder farmers better options to manage and continue earning from their banana crops. 

Australia-Philippine agriculture cooperation extends well beyond banana farming. Indeed, we’ve worked quietly together for over 35 years to find science-driven practical solutions to help rural farming and coastal communities across the Philippines.

In the Hundred Islands in Pangasinan, a team of young scientists from the Marine Science Institute is bringing back to life damaged coral reefs through coral seeding. Farmers in Leyte are learning typhoon-resilient farming to grow vegetables under wind tunnels and are trying new ways to market their produce. In Pampanga, ACIAR has worked with the regional agriculture office and diagnostic laboratory so small-scale hog raisers have access to better disease diagnostic and surveillance services. And in Mindanao a team of researchers and local organisations are working with communities in conflict-vulnerable areas to help them create sustainable incomes through agriculture.

Agriculture as a whole employs about 25 percent of the Philippine workforce. I am proud that Australia can contribute to improving agricultural productivity for hard-working Filipino farmers and fishers, using innovative scientific research. I’m also excited awaiting the next break-through that our collaborative research will bring.

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(Steven J. Robinson AO is the Australian Ambassador to the Philippines. Follow him on Twitter @AusAmbPH)

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