Helping banana growers from Tully to Timbuktu

The future of the banana industry relies heavily on the next generation. For banana research, this requires having energetic, innovative, early career scientists gain their qualifications working alongside current banana research teams and with banana growers.

The Hort Innovation and Queensland Government, Fusarium wilt TR4 research program supported two students working towards gaining their PhD qualifications.

Here we meet the students and gain insights into their experience in the banana industry.

What interested you in the banana industry? 

Henry: As a scientist I want to make a positive difference. Australia is one of the few developed nations with high-quality tropical agriculture science. It is uniquely placed to contribute to solving global food security challenges. Therefore, I jumped at the opportunity to be involved with a world-class team, working on a globally relevant problem like TR4 in bananas. 

Ryan: Living in Cairns, it is easy for me to see the dependence of the region on the banana industry and how devastating the effect of Panama disease could be to the region. Also, I really like to eat bananas, so I was interested to better understand how to grow them. 

What were you doing and where, before you started your research on bananas? 

Henry: I grew up in London, far from agriculture but became interested in environmental issues. My first interaction with tropical agriculture came while I was working in Brazil. It was here that I realised many environmental issues can be solved by improving agricultural systems. 

Ryan: I grew up in Canada and obtained a university degree in chemistry and worked in environmental laboratories. Soon after moving to Cairns I wanted to work more outdoors and be more involved in agriculture, which took me to James Cook University. I was able to combine my experience in chemistry and soil science with how soils affect Panama disease. 

What has your research focussed on? 

Henry: Bananas are associated with bacteria and fungi that can influence the plant’s health but remain under-exploited. Working with Paul Dennis and Tony Pattison at UQ and DAF we’ve been investigating what bacteria and fungi are associated with bananas and Panama disease; and what causes these communities to be structured in the way they are. 

Ryan: My research has focussed on the impacts of soil physical and chemical properties on Panama disease severity. Primarily I have been looking at optimizing the availability of micronutrients (iron, manganese, copper and zinc) and nitrogen to ensure strong plant growth whilst limiting the effect of the pathogen. 

What was the most memorable part of your research? 

Henry: Collecting samples in North Queensland was a great experience. Getting on farm to see the people helps keep the research grounded in the real world. I got to see how different growers manage their properties and the daily challenges they face. Having access to banana farms and sampling soils in tropical forest was really memorable. 

Ryan: At the start of the project I visited 28 banana farms spread across Far North Queensland, from Cardwell to Lakeland. Though it involved a lot of long days and lots of driving it was great to meet the farmers, understand their perspective on our work, how it could help and to see the region. 

How do you think your research has helped banana growers? 

Henry: Our work has defined a core set of microbes that are found in bananas across soil types, and varieties around the world. This means, we can now focus on managing a smaller, effective subset of microbes that influences the fungus that causes TR4. Soon we’ll be able to offer guidelines to banana growers to manage microbes to reduce disease and support production. 

Ryan: My research has helped to identify growing conditions and fertiliser management that may reduce the severity of Panama disease on farms, if it spreads in the future. I think this will be useful for farmers trying to maximize their yield if they are growing on farms affected by Panama disease. 

What do you see for the future of the banana industry? 

Henry: As understanding of the importance of microbes for plant health increases, we can start to manage them precisely on-farm. High-tech portable DNA sequencing for microbes may soon become part of the agronomist’s toolkit to assess plant health. Soon we’ll be able intervene with practices to boost production and protect plants that would enable lower production cost and environmental impact. 

Ryan: I think Australia will continue to lead the international banana production market through innovation. We will continue producing bananas in a sustainable, cost-effective manner through highly efficient fertiliser use and well thought out disease management like this project contributed to.