Monday, June 4, 2012

Filipino discovers cure for dreaded banana diseases

For years, scientists and agriculturists all over the world have been working on developing a cure for Moko and Panama Disease —fungal and bacterial infections that could potentially wipe out the world's banana plantations. Moko disease is a virulent bacterial infection that causes the fruits to ripen prematurely and kills infected plants in just a few weeks. Panama disease or fusarium wilt, on the other hand, is caused by the fungus Fusarium oxyforumcubense and is so damaging that it single-handedly destroyed the Malaysian banana industry only 3 years after it was discovered. These diseases are grave concerns for the Philippines: we are the 3rd largest banana exporting nation in the world, contributing around 12% of global banana exports. It’s a P35 billion industry that contributes almost P400 million in local taxes alone. Traditional treatments: ineffective The traditional method of treating Panama and Moko disease has been to treat the infected plantation with insecticides, then chop and burn the infected crops. The problem with this method is that it doesn’t kill the spores that are already in the soil, and it doesn’t treat the healthy banana offshoots that can serve as carriers for the diseases. Thus, the diseases have a chance to recur and spread even further throughout plantation until the crops are completely wiped out. This has been the way to treat Panama and Moko disease until recently, when one Filipino scientist —after two whole years of research and testing— claims to have developed a cure that works for both diseases. Dr.Angelito Dela Cruz is a plant pathologist, horticulturist, and nematologist with an impressive resume. He started his career at UPLB where he taught and worked as a researcher for 15 years and has worked for several major multinational plantations for almost 20 years. He’s now the VP for Technical services atDelfiAgriventures, a Filipino company that develops and produces agricultural, aquaculture, and environmental products. Dr. Dela Cruz's probiotic treatment What makes Dr.Dela Cruz’s treatment system unique is that it’s not a drug in the traditional sense. When farmers encounter plant pests, their first response would be to kill it by using pesticides, herbicides or antibiotics. However, Dr. Dela Cruz claims that his treatment system works more like a vaccine than an antibiotic: it helps the plant heal itself. The treatment system works a lot like how probiotic drinks —such as Yakult, that classic kids' favorite— work in humans. The idea is is to introduce "good bacteria", which help crowd out and prevent the spread of "bad bacteria". The Moko-Panama disease treatment system is administered by first injecting the affected plants and surrounding plants with a proprietary clay mineral extract. The minerals in this solution (iron and other trace elements) have natural disinfectant properties that kill bacteria and fungi. The next step is to treat the soil with the same clay mineral extract. Not only will this kill the fungi and the bacteria in the soil, it also conditions the soil by neutralizing the soil pH or soil acidity. By making the soil pH neutral, it makes it easier for the plants to absorb nutrients. When the infected plants absorb nutrient better, they become healthier and better at fighting off the infection. Conditioning the soil also prepares the plants for the next step of the treatment process. When the soil is in good condition (neutral pH, high oxygen levels, rich in minerals), it encourages the growth of beneficial microorganisms. These microorganisms can inhibit the growth of Fusariumoxyforumcubense, eventually wiping them out. To speed up this process, the soil is then inoculated the Panama disease’s natural enemy, Trichodermaharzlanum, and other beneficial microorganisms. Limitations and further studies Dela Cruz's system does have its limits, however: it can’t save moderate to severe cases of Moko and Panama disease. Dr.Dela Cruz explains, “In those stages, the vascular system of the plant has been damaged beyond repair. But you still have to inject the treatment in those cases to save the buffer plants and prevent the spread of infection. This way if the farmer does need to chop down several banana trees, he only needs to get rid of the dead ones. He’ll still have some production from the healthy buffer plants and those that have been cured.” No synthetic chemicals are used as all the materials used for this treatment system come from natural sources. The plants and soil come out healthier after treatment. And there’s no risk of contaminating the bananas with harmful pesticides. “The products used in this treatment system are so safe, you can ingest it and not suffer any ill effects,” claims Mr. Roberto Del Fierro, President of DelfiAgriventures. “It was really important for us for this system to be food-grade safe because it touches our food. We also want the farmers that implement this in their farms to feel safe and not have to worry about their health.” Dela Cruz's Moko-Panama disease treatment system has been tested and proven to be effective by studies with the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) and the Department of Agriculture (DA) in small and large banana plantations in 2011. It has since been adopted by the DA as the standard for treating Panama and Moko disease. — TJD