- Dole Fresh Fruit Co. is partnering with startup Boragen to develop a treatment to protect against black Sigatoka, one of the most prominent and harmful diseases for bananas, according to a release.
- The disease, which is also known as black leaf streak, is caused by a fungal pathogen called Mycosphaerella fijiensis. If the disease is left untreated, an entire plantation can reportedly be destroyed in just a couple weeks.
- Boragen uses a boron-based discovery platform to develop compounds with fungicidal capabilities to protect fruit against the disease, according to the release. Boron is a naturally occurring chemical element in the environment and an essential micronutrient for plants.
Bananas are a staple food across many countries as well as an important crop financially. More than 100 billion bananas are consumed in the world annually, according to estimates, and Americans eat an average of 27 pounds of bananas per person each year. But in recent years, diseases have led to substantial production losses.
Black Sigatoka can cause yield depletion of more than 50% and premature ripening, which can be catastrophic for exporting, according to a report from The American Phytopathological Society. Currently, black Sigatoka is controlled with repeated applications of fungicides and other practices, like the removal of affected leaves, at export plantations. These can be pricey and time consuming for producers, so a new treatment would be welcome.
Boron has been used by the pharmaceutical industry for eye care products, and Boragen believes there is potential in the agriculture sector. Boragen’s goal is to provide tools to help farmers combat pesticide resistance issues while also decreasing pesticides. It has partnered with several universities this year to expand its research.
Dole Fresh Fruit said it is collaborating with Boragen to develop new and effective solutions, which makes sense since it is one of the largest producers of fruit and vegetables.
"As pressure to reduce chemical load increases, and the number available crop protection products reduces, the need for alternatives to control this disease is more important than ever," Patricio Gutiérrez, research and innovation director for Dole Fresh Fruit, said in the release.
Bananas have faced serious losses in recent years and black Sigatoka isn't the only disease threatening the crop. Last year, Colombia declared a national state of emergency because diseases put its bananas, a top export for the country, on the brink of extinction.
In the past, a wide variety of bananas were cultivated, but now about 99% of exported bananas are the Cavendish variety. The previous dominant exported banana, the Gros Michel, was wiped out in the 1950s because of the fungal banana wilt disease, Time reported. Farmers planted Cavendish bananas to make up for the lost crops, but scientists have warned Tropical Race 4 (TR4), another strain of banana wilt disease, could destroy crops again. TR4 is still very dangerous to bananas, and scientists have been working on research to find a solution. Both fungal diseases, black Sigatoka and TR4 are threatening future supply.
Now is an especially vital time to protect the crop from diseases because the pandemic is causing additional trouble for producers. Banana exports from the Philippines could drop as much as 40% this year — from 4 million tons to 2.5 million tons — because coronavirus lockdowns and social distancing measures have slashed cultivation and transport.
Since bananas are a $25 billion global industry, protecting the crop and its financial future will be a priority going forward. Companies like Dole that partner to find solutions could be ahead of the competition if they are successful.