Going bananas over budgets


North Queensland banana plantation. Photo Bob Wilson

After seeing a photo on a tourism brochure of a fruit cocktail with a banana posed like a dolphin with its mouth open, eating one will never be the same. I decided to write about bananas after spending two weeks in north Queensland, where 94% of the fruit is grown. I had also recently learned of the re-emergence of Panama disease, coined ‘Bananageddon’ by some droll headline writer.

The threat of disease not withstanding, Australian banana growers have to live through the annual cyclone season and its potential for destruction. In March, the north’s most visible politician, Bob Katter, was clamouring for Federal intervention to help bale out growers devastated by Cyclone Niran.

While North Queensland provided the best growing conditions for bananas, the tropical fruit is always under threat when cyclonic winds blow. The North Queensland Register’s Ben Harden  reported up to 100% losses in the Boogan and Wangan districts near Innisfail. There were 20% to 100% losses along the Cassowary Coast, where most of Australia’s bananas are grown. Katter, the member for Kennedy, as usual got himself front and centre in a press photo taken on a farm wiped out by Niran’s wind gusts (between 205kmh and 265kmh).

Katter has pledged his support behind North Queensland farmers with crops worth $200m knocked out by Cyclone Niran. He said the government should look at crop and livestock insurance funded by a 1% levy on farmers.

“It would make the recovery from these events a lot easier, and we could rebound quicker.

Some banana-growing areas were left untouched, as we discovered when visiting Lakeland south-west of Cooktown.

Lakeland’s rich volcanic soil and mild climate is ideal for growing bananas, plantations of which can be seen along both sides of the Kennedy Development Road between Lakeland and Laura.

We picked up a bird-watching map from Cooktown which identified Lakeland Honey Dam as a location to see water birds. We set off at sunset, only to find a gate with a banana farm sign forbidding entry due to biological risks. So we did not venture further; but if we had, we might have spotted corellas, egrets, herons, brolgas, sarus cranes, square-tailed kites and more.

Turns out the dam is on private property and banana farmers tend to be risk-averse about biological diseases and for good reason. Growers are twitchy about people bringing in banana plants or suckers from New South Wales in particular. In short, they do not want to add bunchy top to the list of issues that face banana growers. Trumping bunchy top though, is the re-emergence of Panama disease, which all but rendered the global banana industry extinct in the 1950s.

Stuart Thompson, Senior Lecturer in Plant Biochemistry, University of Westminster, wrote a lengthy article for The Conversation on this topic.He described the attempts to save the banana and the industry that produces the fruit. Scientists are now in a race to create a new plant resistant to Panama disease.

In the 1950s, a condition known as Fusarium wilt or Panama disease was wiping out whole plantations in the world’s major banana-producing countries of Latin America.

It threatened an industry so important to this part of the world that some States had became known as Banana Republics because they were virtually governed by the corporations that produced the crop.”

Luckily, banana companies realised that another variety of banana, the Cavendish, was almost completely resistant to Panama disease. It rapidly replaced the Gros Michel (Big Mike) type which had prevailed until that time. The Cavendish rescued the industry and by the 21st century, 99% of exported bananas and almost half of world production is of the Cavendish variety.

But this strength has now become the banana industry’s greatest vulnerability. Panama disease has returned, and this time the Cavendish is not resistant,” Thompson wrote.

While the Federal Budget managed to find $371 million for ‘biosecurity measures’, they were more focused on prevention of African swine fever and foot and mouth disease. So it falls to State governments to address their own biosecurity challenges. The Queensland Government stumped up $10 million in 2015-2016 to investigate the re-emerging Panama disease tropical race 4 (TR4). Biosecurity Queensland launched a surveillance programme to detect the presence of the soil-borne fungal disease after it was detected at north Queensland farms.

While that battle is being fought (and once again raising questions about the risks of monoculture), just how important is the banana to Australian consumers and the economy?

The Australian Banana Growers Council (ABGC) is a font of knowledge about all things banana, including the incredible statistic that we consume 16 kg per head per year.

I extrapolated that figure, assuming that the average (four person) household consumes over 1kg (seven bananas) per week.

If you prefer Lady Fingers, you are in a minority, as 97% of bananas grown in Australia are off the Cavendish variety. Growers sold 388,000 tonnes of bananas in 2017-2018 (valued at $587m). The ABGC estimates the industry contributes $1.3 billion to the economy.

For all that, there’s not much protection for growers whose crops are wiped out by cyclones or other weather events, not to mention the incursion of a disease like TR4, which cannot be eradicated.

Nonetheless, banana growers keep up the supply of this popular fruit, with harvesting activity occurring as we drove by. Despite Queensland’s dominant market position, the ABGC’s statistics note a growing contribution to the annual banana production from Western Australia (6,800 tonnes), most of the crops grown around Carnarvon and in the irrigated fields around Kununurra.

Some 15,000 tonnes were grown in New South Wales, around Coffs Harbour and northern NSW where rainfall is plentiful.

We used to grow bananas on our half acre at Maleny. They were tall trees which were quite often raided by Brush Turkeys. They’d clumsily fly to the tops of the trees and partially eat out the green bunches. Our yield was better once we planted dwarf bananas closer to the house. They key is to bag the bunches before they ripen. One you cut a bunch, hang it from a rafter with a bag around it to keep vermin out. Growing bananas in much of Queensland is not hard. There’s a bit of work involved, chipping weeds and thinning out the plantation until you have the desired groups of three at various stages of growth.

We travel a bit and unfortunately, bananas are not good travellers. We bought a half-green bunch on Monday and by Tuesday they were ripe enough to eat.

She Who Makes Banana Cake is in charge of Plan B!

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