Banana birthplace has lessons for today’s farms

Indonesia is believed to be the birthplace of the first bananas. New research conducted there is now helping with strategies to help the modern-day industry in Australia. This report from Jeff Daniells, Tony Pattison, Stewart Lindsay and Wayne O’Neill
Australian banana researchers have been working with their colleagues in Indonesia and the Philippines on projects helping advance understanding of pest and disease control.

Recent project activities linking Australian banana researchers with colleagues in Indonesia has yielded multiple benefits for both countries. Included is a deeper understanding of soil management practices that can help contain Fusarium wilt  Panama disease Tropical Race 4.

About Indonesia

Indonesia straddles the equator to Australia’s north and is an archipelago of more than10,000 islands.

The islands are located within what is considered to be the area where bananas originated and bananas are the most important fruit crop in Indonesia.

Annual banana production exceeds 6 million tonnes – about 20 times Australia’s production. Most bananas are for domestic consumption, grown by smallholders with minimum cultivation and production inputs.

With a population of more than 240 million in Indonesia, this equates to a per capita consumption of about 25 kilograms per year – nearly double Australia’s rate of 15 kilograms.

200 varieties

Recently, there have been two banana variety collecting missions in eastern Indonesia and three projects investigating banana wilt diseases funded by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR).
Being located in the centre of the origin of bananas has given Indonesia a rich diversity of bananas. Wild seeded species are located throughout the country, mostly in association with rainforests.

Whilst there are probably as many as 200 distinct varieties grown in Indonesia, Pisang Kepok (genome-based group ABB, Saba subgroup) is the most popular type, used exclusively for cooking in various ways.

Other important varieties include Pisang Berangan (AAA, Lakatan), Pisang Raja Sereh (AAB, Silk), Pisang Raja (AAB, Pisang Raja), Pisang Muli (AA, Inarnibal), Pisang Ambon (AAA, Gros Michel) and Pisang Ambon Hijau/various (AAA, Cavendish) which make up the majority of production.

Bananas are not just eaten as a ripe dessert fruit. The diversity of cultivars available has led to a range of traditional uses and culinary preparations, all helping to promote additional consumption.

The different cultivars allow farmers to supply different markets, with some regional specialisation. For growers, this means their income is not always dependent on a single market and they can spread the risks posed by pests and disease or oversupply of any one banana cultivar.

TR4 in Indonesia

Just as Indonesia has a diverse range of varieties, it has a range of banana pests and diseases, many which don’t occur in Australia.

The primary focus of the ACIAR research projects has been Fusarium wilt, particularly Tropical Race 4 which is located on most islands including Java, Sumatra, Borneo, Sulawesi, Halmahera and Indonesian-administered Western New Guinea.

The other major pests and diseases include blood disease (bacterial wilt), black Sigatoka, bunchy top, freckle (the Cavendish-affecting strain), banana skipper and banana stem weevil.

These pests and diseases lead to very significant losses in production throughout Indonesia, but improved management techniques has allowed some banana growers to profitably produce bananas.

Benefits to Australia

The methods of management of these exotic diseases provide important lessons to develop resilient banana production systems for Australian banana producers, such as selection of Panama disease-tolerant cultivars, management of plant stress and maintaining plant diversity within banana fields.

The collaborative links developed between the Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries (QDAF) and the Indonesian Tropical Fruit Research Institute (ITFRI) has provided benefits that are filtering through to the Australian banana industry.

Research from the collaborative projects has improved our knowledge of pathogen distribution in our near neighbour Indonesia and has provided insights into management practices which can help suppress disease.

It will also ensure our ongoing involvement in the detection and containment of the exotic threats on our doorstep in Indonesia. It has greatly assisted with preparedness for TR4 which has now arrived in Australia’s main production area.