Kai Wirtz

The Race is On – Mind Your Step!

Most of us enjoy visiting places and in our trips we like to be adventurous and explore new paths, to experience nature. This brings us also close to farming or at least rural areas and the opportunity to cooperate with the local farming community. Yet, we might be oblivious of the fact that with the many benefits travelling offers; such as learning, relaxing, cultural and culinary experiences, it is important to be aware of disruptions we can cause and the need to act responsibly.

One of the fruits I manage in my work at Bayer is banana. Bananas are just perfectly designed for human consumption. Bananas fit perfectly in the human hand, they come with a non-slip surface, a bio-degradable, easy-to-open packaging; and they are very healthy and just delicious. Bananas are super-fruits! In my homeland, Germany, we consume around 60 kilos of fruit a year and 20% are bananas, which means we have 100 bananas per person each year. In Germany only apples are more popular than bananas.

A good reason to favour bananas is that it is rich in Vitamins A, B, C and G. They contain essential minerals, lots of potassium, natural sugars, protein and just a little fat; which associates them with countless health benefits. For instance, diets rich in potassium and low in sodium may help prevent heart disease and help reduce high blood pressure and strokes. Potassium also helps counteract the calcium loss in high salt diets, and boost our defences against stomach acid which reduces the risk of ulcers. Because they contain tryptophan, bananas are good for our brain; they can elevate the mood making us happier.

While bananas are the world’s number 4 dietary staple after rice, wheat and corn, they are very susceptible to diseases. You might have heard of the Panama Disease affecting bananas in some Asian markets and moving towards the west. For producers this is not an unknown risk. In the 50’s many banana plantations where infested and lost to a soil borne fungus (Fusairum oxysporum f. sp. Cubense) which wipped out the Gros Michel banana – the bananas our grandparents ate. Fortunately, there was a remedy: Cavendish bananas were identified as resistant substitutes for Gros Michel, which became a victim of the strain or race 1 of the fungus. Today, Cavendish is still the banana we buy in the supermarket to eat. It is the only variety which meets all the requirements for global export, accounting for 99% of all imports into the Western world. Yet being how it is with nature, a new race 4 has emerged in South-East Asia which is more virulent and to which even Cavendish bananas are susceptible.

Kai Wirtz
Kai Wirtz
Kai Wirtz
Global Crop Manager Fruit, Bayer

The fungus attacks the roots of the banana plant, wound it and enters the vascular system cutting the plants’ supply of water and minerals, and eventually kills the plant. While the banana itself might look the same to the consumers’ eye and can still be safely eaten, the evidence of the disease can be seen in the plant collapsed leaves that turn yellow. In order to stop the spread of this disease that is soil borne but travels also through water and air, farmers’ burn entire plantations abandoning those lands. You would think that there are less drastic measures; of course, those are called ‘biosecurity practices at the farm gate – for example cleaning the tyres of the vehicle, the tools and shoes that move outside the plantation gate. Farmers can spray fungicides to control the disease, which at Bayer we constantly research and improve; as well as train farmers to apply them following Good Agricultural Practices to make them safer for the environment and the people. We also engage in industry-wide efforts such as the one coordinated by the University of Wageningen in the Netherlands to look for ways to contain and stop the disease from repeating the devastating effects it had in the middle of the 20th century.

Next time you plan a trip or listen to the travel adventure stories of a friend, remember that the soil you walk on has many beneficial fungus and insects, but also some that can be very damaging. Be mindful of signs and guidelines from authorities and farmers alike. Also, strictly follow instructions and quarantine guidelines at airports and ports and understand the value of inspections and questionings. Although you may experience them as time-consuming and annoying, they are essential measures to prevent deadly, epidemic pest and diseases to enter virgin territories. While I’m confident we will find a way to save this beloved fruit and staple for many societies, it will take all of our efforts to achieve it - from the scientist to the curious wanderer. It is up to all of us.

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