CAVENDISH VARIANT 218: Becoming The Darling Of Mindanao Growers

Dr. Gus Molina pointing to the devastated Lasang Farm of Dole at left in 2012. At right, the same place has become a plantation of healthy Variant 218 Cavendish.
Besides being resistant to Fusarium Wilt TR4, Variant 218 produces big bunch with good hand formation. It has good eating quality.

The search for a variety that is resistant to the very aggressive Tropical Race 4 (TR4) Fusarium Wilt disease that has been affecting the old Giant Cavendish and Williams varieties has been continuing since 2006, and the most promising result so far has been the Giant Cavendish Tissue Culture Variant 218 from Taiwan. This variety which was brought to the Philippines under the initiative of Dr. Agustin Molina Jr., then the Regional Coordinator for Asia Pacific of Bioversity International, has become the darling of smallhold as well as big time growers in Mindanao.

Dr. Molina saw an urgent need for a solution because Fusarium Wilt was threatening the banana industry in Mindanao which has been bringing into the country about $1 billion a year.

Dr. Molina, a plant pathologist who worked earlier for 10 years in Central America as a senior scientist and later as corporate director of research and technical services at Chiquita Brands International, drew a plan to attack the problem. The first step was to find out the disease organism that was attacking the Cavendish banana plantations in Mindanao. He was able to confirm that the virulent disease was caused by the Fusarium Wilt Tropical Race 4 (TR4) with the help of a laboratory at Stellenbosch University in South Africa.

SMALL FARMERS WORST HIT – In 2005, it was estimated that no less than 3,000 hectares of smallhold Cavendish banana farmers were destroyed by the disease. The big players like Dole and several others had to adopt their own preventive and curative measures but some 6,000 hectares of the big plantations had also suffered from severe infection.

As early as the 1970s, Fusarium Wilt was already in the Philippines but the strain was a mild one that was manageable. By 2005, the virulent TR4 was really causing severe losses. Much earlier, Dr. Molina said, that TR4 had wiped out the Cavendish plantations of Chiquita Brands and other multinationals in Indonesia. They had hoped to produce bananas for the expanding market in the Middle East but they had to abandon their projects because of TR4.

Dr. Emily Fabregar (left) of Lapanday has been a very willing collaborator of Dr. Molina in testing and multiplying the variant variety 218.
Jonas Mauro posing with big bunch of Variant 218 has been a most cooperative collaborator in planting Variant 218.

AROUSING AWARENESS – After confirming that TR4 was the culprit in Mindanao Cavendish plantations, Dr. Molina had to arouse the awareness of all the stakeholders in the banana industry that include the government, the multinational companies, the smallhold farmers, NGOs, research organizations and others.

TBRI TAPPED – Being familiar with what was happening in the banana industry worldwide, Dr. Molina as a Bioversity coordinator in the Asia Pacific, had to talk to the Taiwan Banana Research Institute to share their selections of tissue culture variants that they had used to solve their TR4 Fusarium Wilt problem. He had to employ diplomacy in the framework of the Banana Asia Pacific Network that he coordinated to convince the TBRI to share their varietal selections that can tolerate the TR4.

Six  TBRI variants were shared with Bioversity International with the Bureau of Plant Industry and UP Los Baños as the repository agencies in the Philippines. Dr. Molina, meanwhile, had talked to Lapanday Fruit, one of the big players in the industry, to undertake tissue-culturing of the imported GCTCVs or Giant Cavendish Tissue Culture Variants. Lapanday was only too glad to collaborate and carry out preliminary trials in their infested farms with Dr. Molina because some of the Lapanday farms were also hit by TR4. By 2008, epidemics had significantly increased. The areas in Mandug were totally destroyed. By that time, all the government agencies and other companies were not yet active in addressing the disease.

Dr. Molina said that by 2011, the industry cried for help as thousands of hectares were already affected (3,000 hectares from small growers and maybe 6,000 hectares more from the multinationals.)

PCAARRD ENGAGED – In 2011,  Dr. Molina said that he then engaged PCAARRD (Philippine Council for Agriculture, Aquatic and Natural Resources Research and Development), an agency of the Department of Science and Technology (DOST), to fund replicated field trials of the six variants from Taiwan. Each of the several farmers from different parts in Davao were given 100 tissue-cultured seedlings for each variety, including Gran Naine for comparison.  Helping implement the trials were the Bureau of Plant Industry, UP Los Baños and the University of Southeastern Philippines.

This is a Variant 218 infected with TR4 and left in the field. It is producing healthy suckers that could eventually produce big bunches.

OUT-SCALING BY DA-BAR -Eventually two of the variants were selected for further field testing in a bigger way. For out-scaling, the DA-Bureau of Agricultural Research financed the field planting of the two selected variants. Twenty farmers were given planting materials for two to three hectares each. After the out-scaling phase, the next step was to release to interested farmers tissue-cultured planting materials of Variant 218. In the outscaling, two agencies helped in the implementation namely, the BPI Davao and DA-Region 11. At the same time, Dr. Molina was coordinating with the big companies in undertaking parallel trials of the selected varieties.

Dr. Estrellieta Aldaba is head of the tissue-culture operations at Dole. Behind her under one roof are some 500,000 tissue-cultured seedlings of Variant 218. In four weeks the plants may be ready for planting in the field.
Paul Alegre is the nursery head at Dole in Carmen, Davao del Norte.

COME THE BIG PLAYERS – In the meantime, Lapanday and other big time players like Dole went into mass propagation of 218 for their own planting requirements. Dole is about the most aggressive to propagate 218. During our recent visit to Dole in Carmen, Davao del Norte, Dr. Estrellieta Aldaba said they have already tissue-cultured 5 million seedlings and they are not stopping. Dr. Aldaba is in charge of the tissue-culture operations at Dole.

Dole is not stopping at just multiplying their original stock. They are conducting their own research. A lady scientist from Honduras, Cecilia Donaire, is closely monitoring the performance of the variety under low elevation (less than 300 meters above sea level), medium elevation (between 300 and 600 masl) and high elevation (above 600 masl). At the same time, she will be tagging plants with desirable traits that could be the source of tissue for further multiplication.

Thousands of one-week-old seedlings are hardened in the nursery.

Variant 218 is well liked by the Cavendish planters not only for its resistance to TR4 but also for some other reasons. For one, it produces a big bunch equivalent to 1.8 boxes (13.5 kg/box) of exportable fruits which is comparable to the yield of the standard Gran Naine and Tall Williams.

In addition it has a very good hand formation comparable to the standard export varieties. The fruits can be combined in the box together with the old varieties. And the eating quality is as good. Variant 218 also has the same transport and ripening requirement as Gran Naine and Williams.

Dr. Gus Molina and ZacB. Sarian posing with the staff of the tissue-culture lab of Dole.

Dr. Molina explained that all Cavendish for export must reach the market green. Then they are put inside a ripening room where ethylene gas is applied for uniform ripening.

And so the merry tissue culturing continues.

THE SMALL PLAYERS – These days, Jonas Mauro is a happy smallhold banana planter in Calinan, Davao City. Who wouldn’t be? His banana farm which was wiped out by the destructive Fusarium wilt disease TR4 in 2014 has now become productive and profitable.

Of the 20,000 Variety 218 that he planted in 2016, about five percent were affected by the disease but that is insignificant. Even a 10 percent infection would be still manageable, according to Mauro. He is determined to plant the resistant variety on a 20-hectare farm that his late father bought. He hopes he would be able to have a share of the 1.3 million tissue-culture seedlings that the Department of Agriculture has ordered from Lapanday Food which is the pioneer in multiplying 218 in collaboration with Dr. Molina.

Dr. Gus Molina, Jonas Mauro and Mrs. Emerita Mauro posing with bunch of Variant 218.

HIS OWN TISSUE CULTURE LAB – But he is going to do something more than waiting for the government allocation. He will soon put up a tissue culture laboratory of his own. He will not only produce planting materials for himself but for the hundreds of small farmers and independent growers who don’t have their own laboratories. The multinational companies could not be expected to produce planting materials for other growers for the moment because they are in expansion mode.

Mauro is now tagging indivicual banana plants in his farm as possible mother plants or source of tissue for culturing in the laboratory. He is particularly interested in plants that have big trunk, relatively low growing and with big bunch.

Although there are still infections in Variety 218, Dr. Molina says that it is the best alternative that the farmers can take now. There is no such thing as a perfect variety. Aside from Lapanday and Dole, the other big banana companies like Del Monte, Tadeco and others have adopted the new variety for planting in areas known to have infections and even in non-infected areas.

Dr. Gus Molina and Jonas Mauro posing with a potential mother plant for tissue-culture.

Mauro meanwhile is very optimistic about the future of banana production with the coming of 218. He has no problem marketing his harvest because a big producer-exporter is buying all his production. He is hopeful that he will not only make money from the fruits but also from the tissue-cultured planting materials that he will produce soon.

He is also taking care of 10,000 broilers in another farm as another source of income. He says he can make 7 cycles in one year. He raises his chickens not only for their meat but also for their manure which he uses to fertilize his banana plantation. His wife Rose who is a medical doctor and his mother Emerita, a Los Baños graduate who worked with the Development Bank of the Philippines, are very supportive of his agricultural pursuits.

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