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Tolerant banana is a product of collaboration

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By Zac B. Sarian

The search for a variety that is resistant to the very aggressive Tropical Race 4 (TR4) Fusarium Wilt disease that has been affecting the old Giant Cavendish and Williams varieties has been continuing since 2005, and the most promising result so far has been the GCTCV 218, a tissue culture variant from Taiwan. This variety which was brought to the Philippines through the initiative of Dr. Agustin Molina Jr., then the Regional Coordinator for Asia Pacific of Bioversity International, has become the darling of smallhold as well as big time growers in Mindanao.

The development of this very promising variety could be said to be the result of a well-orchestrated cooperation of various stakeholders in the banana industry that include government agencies, big and small scale banana farmers, research institutions, NGOs, academe and even international partners.

  • Variant Cavendish 218 Tissue-Cultured by the millions – Dole Philippines is about the most aggressive banana company in the Philippines that is propagating the Cavendish Variant 218 from the Taiwan Banana Research Institute (TBRI). It is one of six Giant CavendishTissue Culture Variants (GCTCV) that TBRI shared through Bioversity International with the Bureau of Plant Industry and the Institute of Plant Breeding in Los Baños as repository. Photo shows Dr. Agustin Molina and Dr. Estrellieta Aldaba in the Dole nursery full of two-months old Variant 218. Dole has already produced more than 5 million tissue-cultured Variant 218 and is not stopping.

  • Accepted in the export market – Cavendish planters love Variant 218 not only because it can tolerate TR4 well but because it produces a big bunch equivalent to 1.8 boxes (13.5 kg/box) of exportable fruits which is comparable to the yield of the standard Gran Naine and Tall Williams. It has very good hand formation so that the fruits can be combined in the box together with the old varieties. The eating quality is also good. Photo shows Cecilia Donaire, a senior scientist at Dole Philippines, posing with bunches of Variant 218 brought to the packing house for the export market.

  • Variant 218 for China – Photo shows fruits at the packing facility of Dole in its Licanan Farm being prepared for export to China. This variety is now well accepted in the export market because of its eating quality that is just like that of the standard Gran Naine and Tall Williams. Single fruits are also being prepared in the same packing facility for a special market in Metro Manila, a well known convenience store where each piece is sold for P15.

  • Advising Smallhold Banana Farmers – Dr. Gus Molina loves to lend his expertise, especially to smallhold farmers like Jonas Mauro shown here with his mother Emerita in the Mauro banana farm in Calinan. Dr. Molina has retired from Bioversity International but he also continues to provide guidance to research councils like PCAARRD and DA-BAR on their R&D programs.

  • Thrilled and excited – Dr. Agustin Molina, it seems, cannot hide his thrill and excitement as he sees the beautiful growth of Cavendish Variant 218 in the farm of Jonas Mauro in Calinan, Davao City. Dr. Molina says that his great satisfaction is to see technologies that are developed from his research reach the end-users, the farmers. He is about the most knowledgeable in the Philippines about the Cavendish banana industry because of his wide exposure to the industry internationally. For 10 years he worked in Central America as a senior scientist and later a corporate director of research and technical services at Chiquita Brands International. Then he was regional coordinator for Asia Pacific of Bioversity International which focused its activities in helping the banana industry worldwide.

    In 2005, Dr. Molina saw an urgent need for a solution to the virulent Fusarium Wilt disease that was threatening the banana industry in Mindanao which has been bringing into the country about $1 billion a year. The virulent TR4 was first observed in the highland areas in Calinan, Davao City, in 2000 but no one suspected it was TR4 because a milder strain of this disease has been attacking the Cavendish bananas since the 70s. Then sporadic infection occurred in the traditional production areas in the lowland, particularly in Mandug in Davao City, especially around the river that brought spores of the disease from Calinan.

    By 2005, the disease was alarmigly spreading and really causing sever losses. Much earlier, Dr. Molina said, TR4 had wiped out the Cavendish plantations of Chiquita Brands and other multinationals in Indonesia and Malaysia. They had hoped to produce bananas for the expanding market in the Middle East but they had to abandon their projects because of TR4. Thus the new epidemics of TR4 was a real concern to the survival of the important source of foreign exchange and livelihoods of 320,000 people directly involved in the industry.

    Dr. Molina, a plant pathologist who worked earlier for 10 years in Central America as a senior scientist and later a corporate director of research and technical services at Chiquita Brands International, drew a plan to attack the problem. The first step was to find out the disease organism that was attacking the Cavendish banana plantations in Mindanao. He was able to confirm that the virulent disease was caused by the Fusarium Wilt Tropical Race 4 (TR4) with the help of a laboratory at Stellenbosch University in South Africa.

    Small farmers worst hit – By 2010,  it was estimated that no less than 3,000 hectares of smallhold Cavendish banana farmers were destroyed by the disease. The big players like Dole, Lapanday, Tadeco and several others had to adopt their own preventive and curative measures but thousands of hectares of the big plantations had also suffered from severe infection.

    Arousing Awareness – After confirming that TR4 was the culprit in Mindanao Cavendish plantations, Dr. Molina had to arouse the awareness of all the stakeholders in the banana industry that included the government, the multinational companies, the smallhold farmers, NGOs, research organizations and others.

    TBRI Tapped – Being familiar with what was happening in the banana industry worldwide, Dr. Molina as a Bioversity coordinator in the Asia Pacific, had to negotiate with the Taiwan Banana Research Institute to share their selections of tissue culture variants that they had used to solve their TR4 Fusarium Wilt problem. He had to employ diplomacy in the framework of the Banana Asia Pacific Network that he coordinated to convince the TBRI to share their varietal selections that can tolerate the TR4.

    Six TBRI variants were shared with Bioversity International then sent to the Bureau of Plant Industry and UP Los Baños as repository agencies in the Philippines. Meanwhile in 2006, Dr. Molina, talked with Lapanday Fruit, one of the big players in the industry, to undertake tissue-culturing of the imported GCTCVs or Giant Cavendish Tissue Culture Variants. Lapanday was only too glad to collaborate and carry out preliminary trials in their infested farms with with Dr. Molina because some of the Lapanday farms were also hit by TR4. By 2008, epidemics had significantly increased. The areas in Mandug were totally destroyed. At that time, all the government agencies and other companies were not yet active in addressing the disease.

    Dr. Molina said that by 2011, the industry cried for help as thousands of hectares were already affected (3,000 hectares from small growers and maybe 6,000 hectares more from the multinationals).

    PCAARRD Engaged – In 2011 Dr. Molina said that he then engaged PCAARRD (Philippine Council for Agriculture, Aquatic and Natural Resources Research and Development), an agency of the Department of Science and Technology (DOST), to fund replicated field trials of the six variants from Taiwan. Each of the several farmers from different parts in Davao were given 100 tissue-cultured seedlings for each variety, including one Gran Naine for comparison. Helping implement the trials were the Bureau of Plant Industry, UP Los Baños and the University of Southeastern Philippines.

     Out-Scaling by DA-BAR – Eventually two of the variants were selected for further field testing in a bigger way. For out-scaling, the DA-Bureau of Agricultural Research financed the field planting of the two selected variants. Twenty farmers were given planting materials for two to three hectares each. After the out-scaling phase, the next step was to release to interested farmers tissue-cultured planting materials of Variant 218. In the out-scaling, two agencies helped in the implementation namely, the BPI Davao and DA-Regopn 11. At the same time, Dr. Molina was coordinating with the big companies in undertaking parallel trials of the selected varieties. By 2014, Variant 218 was released for commercial planting.

    Come the big players – In the meantime, Lapanday and other big time players like Dole went into mass propagation of 218 for their own planting requirements. Dole is about the most aggressive to propagate 218. During our recent visit to Dole in Carmen, Davao del Norte, Dr. Estrellieta Aldaba said they have already tisue-cultured 5 million seedlings and they are not stopping. Dr. Aldaba is in charge of the tissue-culture operations at Dole.

    Dole is not stopping at just multiplying their original stock. They are conducting their own research. A lady scientist from Honduras, Cecilia Donaire, is closely monitoring the performance of the variety under low elevation (less than 300 meters above sea level), medium elevation (between 300 and 600 masl) and high elevation (above 600 masl).  At the same time, she will be tagging plants with desirable traits that could be the source of tissue for further multiplication.

    Variant 218 is well liked by the Cavendish planters not only for its resistance to TR4 but also for some other reasons. For one, it produces a big bunch equivalent to 1.8 boxes (13.5 kg/box) of exportable fruits which is comparable to the yield of the standard Gran Naine and Tall Williams.

    In addition it has a very good hand formation comparable to the standard export varieties. The fruits can be combined in the box together with the old varieties. And the eating quality is as good. Variant 218 also has the same transport and ripening requirement as Gran Naine and Williams.

    Dr. Molina explained that all Cavendish for export must reach the market green. Then they are put inside a ripening room where ethylene gas is applied for uniform ripening.

    And so now, the merry tissue-culturing continues. Truly, the development of the promising Variety 18 is not the work of one man but strategic collaboration among stakeholders in the supply chain. What is important, however is that there was a guy who was able to appreciate the situation and design a roadmap to address the problem and pursue it with determination . And that is Dr. Agustin Molina who is now retired but who continues to lend his expertise in support of the banana export industry. He continues to advise small Cavendish banana farmers like Jonas Mauro, Sonny Puyod and guide government research councils like PCAARRD and DA-BAR on their banana R&D. His great satisfaction, he says, is to see technologies that are developed from his research reach the end-users, the farmers. No wonder his email signature bears the following quote: “Impacts of research outputs are measured not much on how many have been published but how many have been used.”

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