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Aphid virus threatens South African banana industry

South Africa’s multi-billion rand banana industry is under threat from a virus that, if not contained, will cripple the industry.  Banana Bunchy Top Virus (BBTV) which inhibits the growth of a young banana plant, eventually rendering it barren, was first detected in SA in 2014 on a 140ha farm on KZN’s South Coast where banana crops are a popular and lucrative farming commodity.

“The danger of this virus is that it cannot be eradicated, only contained,” explains Blaine Peckham, Chairman of the Southern KZN Banana Association (SNBA).

“Once it takes hold of a banana plant, the entire plant – from the mother plant to the suckers – has to be destroyed.  This can result in the destruction of an entire crop”.

“Although the virus is initially contained within the infected plant, it is easily and quickly spread by flying aphids as they move from plant to plant to feed and establish a colony,” explains Peckham.

“Furthermore, an infected plant will only start to show signs of the virus – smaller leaves, and no fruit, two to three months after it has been infected, by which stage, the aphid carrying the virus could already have moved on to the next, healthy banana plant,” says Peckham, pointing out that while still bearing fruit, the virus has “no effect on the fruit itself which remains safe for human consumption.”

Aphids are common on banana plants, enjoying a symbiotic relationship, but “have never been an economic pest until now,” he says.

“Left unchecked, this virus has the potential to devastate banana farms, the industry and the livelihoods of sustainable farmers and farm workers,” he added.

With 260ha of banana plantation under his watch, Peckham is understandably worried. “At this stage, there is no contingency plan in place to deal with the virus and time is of the essence.”

“The only way to control the spread of this virus is to be vigilant and to check your banana plants for signs of stunted growth. Early detection, and elimination of the entire plant, is key in stopping this virus from spreading,” he said.

Watch this video on how to identify the virus and what to do if you suspect your plants are infected: https://goo.gl/DRvERH