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[MANILA] Scientists in the Philippines are urging their government to set up a national research centre to develop varieties of banana resistant to a disease now threatening plantations across South-East Asia.

The move follows appeals from growers who are facing the uncontrollable spread of Panama disease, caused by a destructive fungus that has wiped out banana varieties in the past.

The disease, also known as fusarium wilt, has been dormant for about 50 years, but a virulent strain has now reappeared in plantations in the Philippines, having spread from Australia to countries in Southeast Asia and Taiwan.

In the Philippines, the 'tropical race 4' strain has already wiped out 1,200 hectares of banana plantations, particularly the Cavendish variety, according to Stephen Antig, executive director of the Pilipino Banana Growers and Exporters Association (PBGEA).

Cavendish is the most popular commercial variety for export worldwide. It replaced Gros Michel, which had dominated the international banana market for more than a century until that too was wiped out by Panama disease by the 1960s.

Antig told SciDev.Net that the disease has also spread to other banana varieties, threatening the livelihoods of thousands of farmers in the country. "Most of those affected are small growers who cannot afford or do not know what measures to take," he added.

He stressed that the private sector needs help in fighting the disease. Together with several scientists, PBGEA is pushing for government legislation to establish the National Research, Development and Extension Center for Banana, which its proponents hope will speed up response to disease and pests outbreaks, and develop a Cavendish variety that is resistant to Panama disease.

Agustin Molina, regional coordinator of the International Network for the Improvement of Banana and Plantain–Asia Pacific Banana Research Network, which operates under Bioversity International, said the disease is a global problem and countries need to invest in research to lessen its impact.

"Our network is partnering with national programmes such as that run by the Taiwan Banana Research Institute and Lapanday Foods Corporation [a major grower of Cavendish in the Philippines], representing the PBGEA," said Molina.

He revealed that results of a field study in Davao City, on the island of Mindanao in the Philippines, show that two Cavendish varieties are highly resistant to Panama disease.

These varieties, he said, were produced in Taiwan by selecting improved mutants from the Cavendish variety. "What commercial companies should be doing is selecting an improved mutant from these Taiwanese varieties under local conditions," said Molina.

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