ICAR scientists brave COVID-19 risks to control banana wilt disease

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Updated: May 4, 2020 6:15:35 PM

Fusarium wilt with tropical race 4 (TR4) strain is a soil-borne fungal disease that affects mainly cavendish varieties of banana.

ICAR scientists, COVID-19 risks, Uttar Pradesh, CSSRI, COVID-19 crisis, Sitamarhi district, ICAR-FUSICONT, latest news on coronavirus outbreakSigns of fungus were first spotted three years back in Uttar Pradesh and later spread to Bihar, putting the region on high alert. (File photo: IE)

Unfazed by the COVID-19 risks, farm scientists from two Lucknow-based ICAR institutes are on the front line to control a fungal disease in banana crop especially in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar ahead of the planting season.

Fusarium wilt with tropical race 4 (TR4) strain is a soil-borne fungal disease that affects mainly cavendish varieties of banana. Signs of fungus were first spotted three years back in Uttar Pradesh and later spread to Bihar, putting the region on high alert.

While farm scientists from the Central Soil Salinity Research Institute (CSSRI) and the Central Institute for Subtropical Horticulture (CISH) together have developed a bioformulation called ‘ICAR-FUSICONT’ to fight the fungus, the lockdown has limited the scale of production.

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“The production was happening on a small scale earlier but it came to a halt due to the COVID-19 crisis. However, we took special permission and began production. Our scientists are braving all odds to come for work during the lockdown period,” ICAR-Central Institute for Subtropical Horticulture (CISH) Director Shailendra Rajan told PTI.

The CISH director developed the bioformulation along with CSSRI Principal Scientist T Damodaran. They are awaiting regulatory approval for commercial production, though parent body ICAR has asked them to scale up the output to ensure its availability to farmers at a cheaper rate.

Stating that it was necessary to put into motion the production of this product in this lockdown, Damodaran said because it has to be applied before the banana planting begins from June in these two states. Its application during May is of utmost important.

He further said that the disease is highly transmissible and easily spreads through the exchange of planting materials (banana suckers), water, and movement of people and equipment. About 50 per cent crop has been lost to this disease in the last two years, hitting the farmers income.

Since the lockdown limited direct interaction with farmers, Damodaran said the CSSRI-CISH scientists began using an online Zoom App to hold meetings with banana growers and support them in crop management.

“I think awareness about COVID-19 among farmers helped them understand with greater seriousness the fungal disease in banana crops. They began to take seriously the importance of sanitisation of tractors, footwear and equipment…,” he stated.

In Uttar Pradesh, Maharajganj, Gorakhpur, Ayodhya, and Sant Kabir Nagar are four highly infected districts. The secondary infection has spread to other three districts of Ambedkar Nagar, Sitapur and Barabanki, according to CSSRI-CISH.

In Bihar, the disease spread first from Katihar to Purnia, Bhagalpur, Hazipur and Naugachia districts. The secondary transmission has taken place in Sitamarhi district.

Banana grower Bipin Singh from Sitamarhi district of Bihar, who is preparing his land for banana plantation in four acres, said, “I am struggling to get my hands on this new formulation which has to be applied this month. I don’t know how will I manage to get the supply in this lockdown. Is there a way the government can help”

Many farmers are demanding the government to improve the supply of this new product ICAR-FUSICONT’, which can help them save the crop and reduce losses.

According to Damodaran, the production has been undertaken right now for meeting the demand of growers in highly infected areas of the two states.

The CSSRI-CISH are producing 1,000 kg a month, against the requirement of 1,500 kg. So far, 800 kg has been supplied to Uttar Pradesh only. No supply could be made to Bihar due to hurdles in inter-state movement of goods, he said.

Another batch of 500 kg of the formulation is ready for dispatch on May 11, he said adding that a Delhi-based company has also been asked to manufacture about 500 kg.

Besides, CSSRI-CISH has another way to control the disease. It is experimenting with plant-led vaccination.

“We have come up with an immuniser and we will be validating 50,000 planters this year. We have arranged passes for distribution of tissue culture material for experimentation in Ayodhya,” Damodaran added.

With the fungus disease spreading now to parts of Madhya Pradesh and a milder strain of TR-4 in Surat area of Gujarat, Damodaran emphasised on the need to scale up production of new formulation at a faster rate.

India is the largest producer of bananas and accounts for 29.1 per cent of the global output.

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