Fungus threatening agriculture in OECS countries

CASTRIES, St Lucia, February 26, 2010 – An agriculture official at the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) Secretariat has warned that the presence of a fungus known as the black sigatoka in some member countries has the potential to significantly impact their agricultural industries.

The fungus which has already been reported in at least three OECS member states, can slash banana yields in half.

Agriculture Economist at the OECS Secretariat George Alcee says the deadly plant fungus also affects plantain crops.

“It causes premature ripening which is a serious defect in exported fruit. That concomitant reduction in yield translates to a reduction in export and export earnings, hence, a decrease in revenue and by extension a likely downturn in the economies of member states dependent on bananas,” he said.

Alcee added that efforts to eradicate the plant disease can also create a further financial burden on farmers and the agriculture industry as a whole.

“You would need to use a lot more fungicides at increased ratios and frequencies. This is costly. You also need to intensify your management practices including your cultural practices such as detrashing to prevent spores from germinating in the field, improve drainage and general management,” he said.

Alcee says mechanisms can be applied to reduce the threat of the black sigatoka entering a country.

He has therefore called for stringent management and control practices.

“What could be done is take a prophylactic approach to the management of the disease. Black sigatoka is spread by wind, water, insects mites, birds and other vectors and  humans who could disseminate spores over short and long distances in a number of  ways including field visits and successive handling of diseased and healthy plants or importation of  plant material which may be an alternative host to the black sigatoka such as anthuriums and philodendrons,” he explained.

“One of the ways of helping to curb the disease is for the quarantine experts to be more vigilant in preventing plant material of the aforementioned species from entering our ports.”

Black sigatoka is not new to the Western Hemisphere. Alcee says it was first recognised in the Fiji Valley in 1963, was further discovered in 1972 in Honduras and gradually made its way to Caribbean countries including Cuba, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, Trinidad and Tobago, Grenada, St Vincent and the Grenadines and St Lucia.