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Panama disease threatens NT banana industry -

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TONY EASTLEY: Nineteen months ago, Australia's banana industry was in crisis after the devastation
of Cyclone Larry, in far north Queensland.

Northern Territory farmers were the big winners as banana prices went through the roof and demand
outstripped supply.

Now the Northern Territory industry, which had such bright prospects, is facing collapse from the
exotic Panama disease.

Anne Barker reports:

(sound of banana tree being handled)

ANNE BARKER: This is the biggest banana plantation in the Top End. The Borsato Company supplies two
thirds of the Northern Territory market and as the recent harvest of firm ripe fruit is packed into
boxes, you'd never the industry here was on its knees.

MARK SMITH: Basically, this tree over here, obviously...

ANNE BARKER: But look closer at the trees themselves and manager, Mark Smith, sees all the
tell-tale signs of the devastating Panama disease.

Stunted growth, wilting yellow leaves and discoloured stalks.

MARK SMITH: Basically, it just invades the banana plant and the plant blocks off the vascular tubes
that feed the nutrients around the tree and basically the banana plant kills itself.

ANNE BARKER: First detected in Australia ten years ago, this soil fungus has already destroyed
other plantations and is now crippling this one. It's left Borsato with no choice but to shut down
its entire Northern Territory operation.

MARK SMITH: It's now down to virtually we're going to finish up. We had 300 acres of bananas here
with prospects of expanding - we're down to 40 acres now, which says it all.

And we haven't planted any more so we'll probably get another 12 months out of this 40 acres and
then shut up shop as far as bananas go.

ANNE BARKER: The only hope now of saving the Northern Territory industry is to find or develop a
Panama resistant variety of bananas. Mark Smith blames the Northern Territory Government for not
doing better research to achieve that and control the disease from spreading between farms.

MARK SMITH: It just seemed strange that all the growers got it within 12 months of them finding it
here in the Territory and there have been people growing bananas for a long time up here that
didn't have any problems with Panama.

ANNE BARKER: But the Northern Territory Primary Industries Minister, Chris Natt. denies the
industry is about to fold.

CHRIS NATT: We are undertaking quite a bit of research at the moment to find out whether there are
species or varieties of bananas that are immune to the disease. We understand that there is
probably three or four that are immune to the disease and to see if we can increase the industry
within the Northern Territory.

ANNE BARKER: So you don't think that this is the collapse of the industry for the NT?

CHRIS NATT: Oh look, I don't think it's a collapse. It's probably a little hiccup but we would like
to think that we can get on top of that and find some other varieties that can be used in the
market in the future.

TONY EASTLEY: The Northern Territory Primary Industries Minister Chris Natt. Anne Barker the
reporter.