December 08, 2008

As If Things Couldn't Get Any Worse In Africa

It appears as though the vanilla crop in Madagascar is under attack.

The scientists' initial assessment released Monday said the world's main vanilla exporter needs to radically change farming methods to fight the disease, carried by an underground fungus.

Most of Madagascar's vanilla is exported to the United States, where it is used in candy, soft drinks and ice cream.

"The situation is critical," Malagasy agronomic research chief Simeon Rakotomamonjy told The Associated Press. "The disease now affects 80 percent of plantations around Sambava and Andapa," two of Madagascar's three main centers of vanilla production.

Surveys in the more isolated Antalaha region so far reveal only a trace of the fungus.

Fungus spores attack a vanilla plant at the root, and a black rot spreads upward, often killing pods before they reach maturity. The disease is known for the moment only by its local name, bekorontsana, which means "falls to the ground often," said plant specialist Alain Paul Andrianaivo.

Researchers propose a wholesale replanting of disease-prone species with a vanilla hybrid that, laboratory tests suggest, is fungus-resistant.

If new plants are the answer, the government will have to help, said Charles Gabriel, a farmer in the affected region.

"For the moment I have not got the money to buy new plants," said Gabriel, who farms two fields he inherited from his parents. "I would also need to see that it works before I begin planting."

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