The GMB union has revealed that the emergence of a new pathogen called Fusarium Wilt Tropical Race 4 (TR4) has been affecting crop production in many parts of the world.
TR4 is a variation of the plant pathogen known as Panama disease that, during the 1950s, wiped out most commercial production of Gros Michel bananas, at that time the dominant cultivar of bananas.
News of the new pathogen was unveiled as trade unions and small producers met at the third World Banana Forum in Geneva this week.
According to Banana Link, the not-for-profit co-operative based in Norwich, Britons alone eat over five billion bananas every year.
The pathogen has already affected crops of Cavendish bananas across Asia, including the Philippines and Indonesia, and in Jordan, Pakistan and Lebanon. It is on the rise in Africa and Australia.
Speaking from the World Banana Forum in Geneva, GMB's international officer Bert Schouwenburg said it was only a matter of time before the disease takes hold elsewhere, with “devastating consequences for exports to Britain and Europe”.
“The system for the production and trade of dessert bananas is little more than a house of cards built on the shaky foundations of monoculture and genetic uniformity. This house of cards threatens to collapse at any moment,” he said.
However, a spokeswoman from the Fresh Produce Consortium said the spread was not rapid and that a lot of work was taking place to slow down its advance.
“In the short term there will be no problem with supply of bananas to the UK as all areas from which we import are unaffected,” she said.
“Prices for bananas are highly competitive and at some time will have to increase, however that will depend over time on other market forces and not the current spread of this disease. If the disease becomes established in Central and South America, then this would become a concern for UK supplies.”