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Xavier Lazo Guerrero, Ecuador’s agriculture minister, is leading efforts to prevent a deadly fungus from reaching the nation’s banana plantations.

Fernando Lagla/Asamblea Nacional del Ecuador (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Q&A: How Ecuador, the world’s largest banana exporter, is defending against a devastating fungus

Earlier this month, banana growers in Latin America got some worrying news. Officials in Colombia said four plantations had been quarantined after the possible appearance of a banana fungus that has already caused devastating losses in Asia. Fusarium wilt tropical race 4 (TR4) kills the plants by clogging their vascular system.

The discovery, which hasn’t yet been confirmed, has put countries in the region on high alert. Neighboring Ecuador, for example, is the largest banana exporter in the world, and preventing TR4 from entering the country has become “my No. 1 priority,” says Ecuador’s minister of agriculture and livestock, Xavier Lazo Guerrero, who is based in Quito.

ScienceInsider recently spoke with Lazo about how Ecuador is responding to the potential threat to one of its most important crops. The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Q: How worried are you?

A: I’m calm but busy. This is a danger to our economy. We have more than 16,000 producers of bananas, plantains, and other bananalike crops. Unlike the rest of Latin America, there are many small-scale producers here that provide for their families. The overall industry employs more than 2.5 million people. It accounts for 17% of the population’s employment and is worth more than $3 billion.

Q: What action is Ecuador taking?

A: For a few years now, we’ve had a contingency plan. The first part is the sanitary defense of possible points of entry. In this case, since the danger is from the north, the priority is controlling the northern border [at crossing] points for vehicles and people. We’ve also got a bigger issue with the waves of [migrants] that are coming from Venezuela and pass through Colombia on their way south. So, this is a response that’s not just from our country, it’s at the regional level.

We [have also] formed biosecurity protocols that are part of a larger plan to stay ahead of this fungus. We’ll have almost 1000 technical experts deployed in [banana-growing zones]. We’re distributing information on how to prevent and diagnose the fungus, and what to do in case symptoms of the disease are found.

We have large numbers of producers who are being trained. If at the end of the day the producers don’t take direct responsibility in applying biosecurity protocols on each and every farm, it will be very hard to be successful in containing and potentially suppressing this. … We’ve rolled out requests for help throughout the production chain from fumigators, plastic vendors, and quality control inspectors.

The police department, border control, customs and immigration, the military, and institute of defense are all involved. We have strengthened our national laboratories … with equipment to enable rapid-response DNA analysis and genome sequencing.

Q: On 12 July, the government announced $18 million in funding to support these efforts. Are these new funds?

A: Basically, this is a reinforcement of our sanitization authority’s budget, precisely to activate this contingency plan. … [It will help fund] training, greater communication, and maintaining our sanitary defenses along our borders and in ports and airports, and beefing up our analytical abilities. For this stage, we have this budgeted [through] the end of 2020. If we have to move to [disease] suppression, that would merit the possibility of further strengthening our resources.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Ecuador’s position, in both the public and private sector, is a call to join together throughout the region. It’s also an individual call to action for each producer who needs to defend their heritage and their crops. It’s a call to the speed with which academics must respond, without a doubt. I think the unified effort of everyone [is needed]. Right now, a microscopic fungus could bring us all together. It is very important to recognize that, [in] the end, biology and microbiology are forces so powerful they could unite us all.