- Researchers have designed an artificial intelligence-powered tool built into an app that can detect pathogens of diseases afflicting bananas at an early stage and help fast-track control and disease mitigation efforts.
- The tool is being tested on three main banana-producing continents: Asia, Latin America and Africa. India is the largest producer of bananas in the world.
- Researchers believe the app can check further spread of the Fusarium wilt disease that is ravaging banana plantations in Latin America.
Oblivious to those depending on bananas for their favourite protein shake or breakfast fix, a deadly fungus has sneaked up on banana plantations in South America, threatening the fruit’s future. An artificial intelligence-powered smartphone app developed for banana farmers can come in handy to stem further spread of the disease, its makers from Colombia, India and U.S., said.
The artificial intelligence-powered tool built into the app called Tumaini – which means “hope” in Swahili- can detect pathogens at an early stage and help fast-track control and mitigation efforts, according to a statement by researchers who designed the application.
The app has been developed by scientists from the Colombia-based International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), the Imayam Institute of Agriculture and Technology (IIAT), Tamil Nadu in India, and Texas A&M University, in the United States.
The tool is being tested on three main banana-producing continents: Asia, Latin America and Africa. It has been tried in Colombia in South America; the Democratic Republic of Congo, Benin and Uganda in Africa; and India and China in Asia.
In August this year, the Colombian Agricultural Institute (ICA) confirmed the presence of the fungus known as Fusarium wilt tropical race 4 (TR4), a strain of the soil-borne Fusarium fungus. Fusarium wilt (TR4) or Panama disease is ravaging crops of Cavendish bananas – the most commercialised banana variety in the world – in Latin America, following its continued devastation in Asia, Africa and Australia.
Panama disease was also responsible for destroying Gros Michel, the dominant commercial banana in the 1950s. Cavendish, which resisted the disease, was introduced then, according to a report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).
Fusarium wilt or Panama disease has been shown to affect all banana varieties cultivated in India, the largest producer of the fruit in the world. The fungus invades the plant’s vascular tissue, starves the plant of nutrients and eventually kills it.
Michael Gomez Selvaraj, CIAT researcher and lead author of the paper documenting the app told Mongabay-India: “Since this app can detect Fusarium wilt, it can easily map the location and scan the samples to confirm the TR4 and prevent further outbreaks.”
The app scans five major diseases, including Fusarium wilt of banana, and one common pest.
The other diseases are Xanthomonas wilt of banana (BXW), black sigatoka (BS), yellow sigatoka (YS) and banana bunchy top disease (BBTV). The pest in question is the banana corm weevil (BCW).
According to the authors, the developed model system from this study is easily transferable to other CGIAR mandated crops. CGIAR is the world’s largest global agricultural innovation network of 15 international agricultural research centres, and includes CIAT.
How Indian farmers will benefit
Selvaraj said the app is designed to help smallholder banana growers quickly detect a disease or pest and prevent a wide outbreak from happening. The app can detect symptoms on any part of the crop, and is trained to read even images of low quality.
“Yellow leaf spot or yellow sigatoka and Fusarium wilt are major fungal diseases in India and farmers spend a lot of money on fungicides. Apart from the fungal disease, viral diseases such as the banana bunchy top virus (BBTV) is also a major problem in hilly areas of Tamil Nadu, Kerala and northeast region,” said Sivalingam Elayabalan of Imayam Institute of Agriculture and Technology (IIAT), one of the partners in app development and a study co-author. IIAT is affiliated to Tamil Nadu Agricultural University.
“The app can tell the farmers in advance (of the disease), bringing down the cost of investing in huge treatments,” Elayabalan told Mongabay-India.
The developed model was able to detect the difference between healthy and infected plant parts for different banana diseases, the authors write in the study.
For Indian farmers with smartphones, the free-downloadable tool paves the way for a suite of services such as on-farm diagnostics of pest and diseases of banana, science-based recommendations, advisory for control measures and spreading awareness for farmers through local languages.
Additionally, it is a step towards creating a satellite-powered, globally connected network to control disease and pest outbreaks, said the researchers.
“The GPS tagged images from this app can serve as ground-truth data to map banana land cover and carry out disease surveillance by high-resolution satellites,” explained Selvaraj.
Elayabalan is testing the app in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, a “hotspot” of banana pest and disease.
“For banana bunchy top virus, we are testing at lower Palani hills and Kolli hills. For Fusarium wilt, Theni and Trichy are the trial sites while we are testing for yellow leaf spot disease across Tamil Nadu,” said Elayabalan.
This test is to be replicated in India’s banana-growing areas with the help of Indian Council of Agriculture Research, state agricultural departments, state agricultural universities and National Research Centre for Banana leveraging the states’ vernacular.
To build the app, the researchers collected more than 60000 photos of pest and banana diseases from across the globe.
As many as 20,000 images that depicted various visible banana disease and pest symptoms were uploaded onto the app. With this information, the app scans photos of parts of the fruit, bunch, or plant to determine the nature of the disease or pest. It then provides the steps necessary to address the specific disease. In addition, the app also records the data, including geographic location, and feeds it into a larger database, researchers said in a statement.
Beyond disease and pest
Disease diagnostics has also put into perspective the loss of disease-resistant wild banana varieties in India.
In 2006 the FAO expressed concern over the shrinking numbers of wild bananas in India. Overexploitation and the loss of forests as a result of encroachment and logging, slash-and-burn cultivation and urbanisation are causing a rapid loss of wild banana species that have existed in India for thousands of years. Among them are the ancestors of the Cavendish variety, the FAO said.
India’s lost bananas include a variety which “conferred genetic resistance to the dreaded black Sigatoka fungus disease” that devastated plantations in the Amazon and elsewhere. Only “one clone” of the species, whose scientific name is Musa acuminata spp burmannica, remains at the Indian Botanic Gardens in Kolkata, the FAO report states.
Additionally, in another recent study, experts have also drawn attention to the “largely ignored” impacts of climate change on bananas.
Led by Dan Bebber from the University of Exeter, scientists studied both the recent and future impact of climate change on the world’s leading banana producers and exporters. It shows that 27 countries – accounting for 86 percent of the world’s dessert banana production – have on average seen increased crop yield since 1961 due to the changing climate resulting in more favourable growing conditions, according to a statement.
However, crucially the report also suggests that these “gains could be significantly reduced, or disappear completely, by 2050 if climate change continues at its expected rate.”
The study highlights that 10 countries – including the world’s largest producer and consumer of banana, India and the fourth-largest producer, Brazil – are predicted to see a “significant decline” in crop yields. It also suggests that some countries – including Ecuador (the largest exporter) and Honduras, as well as a number of African countries – may see an overall benefit in crop yields.
Selvaraj, M. G., Vergara, A., Ruiz, H., Safari, N., Elayabalan, S., Ocimati, W., & Blomme, G. (2019). AI-powered banana diseases and pest detection. Plant Methods, 15(1), 1-11.
Banner image: India is the world’s largest producer of bananas. An easily accessible mobile application that detects diseases can help farmers and researchers to prevent outbreaks. Photo from Unsplash.