Banana Emergency Strikes Costa Rica

CREDIT: A.P. Images

In 2012, bananas exports from Costa Rica were worth $815 million.

A “banana emergency” sounds almost comic, but it’s anything but funny when bananas are your staple food source and income, and the emergency is an insect infestation that threatens to destroy that all-important crop.

That’s exactly the situation in Costa Rica, where on Tuesday, officials from the Agriculture and Livestock Ministry’s State Phytosanitary Services, (SFE) issued a statement declaring a national crop emergency for bananas.

In 2012, Costa Rica exported more than 1.2 million tons of fresh bananas worth $815 million according to the Foreign Trade Promotion office.

This year’s crop could be substantially less thanks to an outbreak of scale insects and mealybugs. Currently the pests have spread across 24,000 hectares of plantations in the country’s Atlantic region.

While the two insects don’t damage bananas to the point where they are actually inedible, they do cause unappetizing blemishes that will not be accepted by exporters. Scale insects and mealybugs are related to aphids, and like aphids, they feed on plant sap, which weakens the plant and causes the leaves to drop. They also excrete a sticky substance called “honeydew,” which causes the growth of sooty mold on fruit.

SFE Director, Magda González, told The Tico Times that climate change is helping the infestation spread.

“Climate change, by affecting temperature, favors the conditions under which the insects reproduce,” González said. Changes in rain patterns are also making the problem worse. Gonzalez estimated that these conditions could shorten the insects’ reproduction cycle by one third. 

“I can tell you with near certainty that climate change is behind these pests,” she told The Tico Times.

Costa Rica’s immediate response to the outbreak has been to import more plastic bags impregnated with the pesticides buprofezin and bifenthrin. The bags are wrapped around individual banana bunches to protect the fruit from the destructive pests.

Bananas are extremely vulnerable to a wide variety of diseases, but because there is extremely little genetic variation in the commercial crop. Costa Rica has been under pressure to use fewer pesticides on its banana plantations after a recent study highlighted the fact that these chemicals were washing into streams, killing fish, and accumulating in the bodies of higher predators, like the rare, small crocodile, the spectacled caiman.

Globally, the future of bananas in a changing climate is an uncertain one. The Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, CGIAR, recently suggested that bananas may replace crops like potatoes as those lowly tubers are driven north by warmer temperatures.

But currently, some of the world’s biggest banana growing regions are battling crop-killing disease, making a world of more bananas seem less likely.

An outbreak of Panama disease, caused by the fungus Fusarium oxysporum f. sp. cubense, has spread from banana plantations in Southeast Asia to Jordan and Mozambique. Banana producers from Africa to Latin America are bracing for a potential epidemic. The fungus causes a deadly rot and is notoriously difficult to eradicate from soil once present.

In addition to being a multibillion-dollar industry worldwide, nearly 400 million people in developing nations depend on bananas for food.