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The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has called for a global map of banana and plantain diseases to stem crop damage to the crops that could reach US$4 billion by next year.

The agency says that as well as banana bunchy top disease and banana bacterial wilt — which threaten the food security of 70 million people in Sub-Saharan African — two other diseases, black leaf streak and fusarium wilt, are also spreading.

In a report presented at the Fourth Session of the Sub-Group on Bananas in Rome last week (9–11 December), the FAO called for more resources to be invested in a global disease map.

"All four diseases merit far greater investment in public awareness, basic and applied research, and farmer training and production services to growers," it noted.

Hein Bouwmeester, a researcher at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, explained that to create a global disease map researchers must locate banana and plantain production areas, define diseases they are looking for and systematically sample crops for the diseases or use existing information.

Other activities such as monitoring spread to non-affected areas and creating buffer zones can then follow. The process is time-consuming and expensive, he said.

And funds are limited at present, the FAO told SciDev.Net. "The amount required will be known in time but what we need now is commitment from governments and donors to support this initiative," said a spokeswoman.

At a meeting held in Tanzania earlier this year (September), the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research recommended that farmers excavate diseased banana fields and burn the plants, or treat them with pesticides.

On the positive side, the FAO notes that the market for bananas is expected to hold up well during the current economic crisis. It predicts that global imports will drop slightly to 13.8 million tonnes this year, just three per cent less than in 2007.