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Battling the black death of bananas

May 12, 2016

Bananas are a billion-dollar industry in Costa Rica. The much-loved fruit is the country’s fourth-ranked export at $1.38 billion in value, with approximately 115 million boxes of bananas sold annually to the U.S. and Europe.

But among the banana trees, there is a dark battle underway. Black sigatoka and other diseases threaten to annihilate the banana industry and the very livelihood of an estimated 10 percent of Costa Rica’s workforce.

Small farm plantations have been forced to cease their operations as black sigatoka has wreaked its havoc, decreasing yields by 50 percent and driving production costs up by 25 percent.

Much like a real war, local residents have become used to the drone of planes flying overhead. In this case, the weapon of war is fungicide applications, which, according to Kyle McKinney, crop science development manager for Alltech in Costa Rica, took place 60–70 times in 2015 in a valiant attempt to keep black sigatoka at bay. To put this in perspective, there were approximately only five to seven fungicide applications in 2010.

Enlisting nature’s help in bananas' battle against black sigatoka

In 2015, Alltech constructed a lab in Costa Rica dedicated to the battle for bananas. Calling upon their expertise in microbiology, Alltech scientists “enlisted the help of friends called microbes,” said Dr. Pearse Lyons, president and founder of Alltech.

This natural deployment of microbial technology appears to be having an effect on inhibiting the growth of Mycosphaerella fijiensis, otherwise known as black sigatoka.

Field trials in Costa Rica have been underway, alternating weekly microbial treatments with conventional fungicides. After two years, the project has expanded to 12 growers representing over 5,000 acres and over 1.5 million boxes of bananas destined for both the foreign and domestic market.

McKinney expects the program to expand its reach to other growers.

“The Alltech Crop Science program has decreased chemical pesticide treatments by 20% while maintaining equivalent disease control, at similar costs, making it a viable and sustainable option for the grower,” said McKinney.

McKinney noted that Alltech plans to stay the course in Costa Rica. In addition to its recently constructed lab and installation of fermentation equipment, Alltech is supporting an employee’s Ph.D. studies in Costa Rica to begin a project focused on disease control through microbial technologies.

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