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Amid rising hunger, Venezuela plantain crops threatened by fungus - agronomists

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By Reuters
Amid rising hunger, Venezuela plantain crops threatened by fungus - agronomists
FILE PHOTO: Workers move plastic baskets filled with plantain from a farmer's truck to Humberto Aguilar's truck at his house in La Grita, Venezuela January 29, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins   -   Copyright  Carlos Garcia Rawlins(Reuters)

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuela’s banana and plantain crops face potential infestation of a fungus already effecting neighbouring Colombia, an agronomists association said on Wednesday, potentially devastating one of Venezuela’s main foods amid rising hunger.

A hyperinflationary economic collapse has left millions of the OPEC member’s citizens unable to obtain enough calories and has pushed diets towards starchy staples that grow readily in its tropical climate.

Venezuela’s banana and plantain crops are concentrated in the state of Zulia on the border with Colombia, where 150 hectares (371 acres) of bananas were quarantined in July on suspicion they were infested by the Fusarium R4T fungus. {nL2N24F08V]

The fungus causes a malady popularly known as Panama disease and can remain in the soil for up to 30 years by attacking the roots of plants.

“The devastation of the crops would be very fast” if the fungus reached Venezuela, Saul Lopez, president of Venezuela’s Association of Agricultural Engineers, said at a news conference.

Venezuela has a combined total of around 70,000 hectares (173,000 acres) of bananas and plantains under plantation, Lopez said, adding that the economic crisis has left the country without personnel to address the problem.

The information ministry did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

The flow of people and food between Venezuela and Colombia creates a significant possibility that the fungus could reach Venezuela, said Edison Arciniega of food-security focused non-profit Citizenship in Action.

A contagion “would imply the disappearance of the main elements of the Venezuelan diet,” Arciniega said, noting that Venezuelans consume around one kilogram (2.2 pounds) per month of plantains and bananas.

Nutrition experts for years have said Venezuelan diets have become more dependent on starches because of shortages or prohibitive costs of more complete meals including beans, dairy or meat.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro says the country is a victim of an “economic war” led by political adversaries and exacerbated by United States sanctions.

His critics say failed policies and chronic corruption are to blame for the crisis.

(Reporting by Vivian Sequera, writing by Brian Ellsworth; editing by Nate Raymond and Grant McCool)