JIS News

The Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries is intensifying its fight against lethal yellowing disease, as it seeks to protect and preserve the coconut industry, which earned $1 billion last year.

The Ministry is working with Mexico and Brazil to find solutions, but in the meantime, has rolled out the “Black” approach, which is aimed at replacing infected trees, with healthy ones.

Plant Pathologist/Molecular Biologist at the Coconut Industry Board, Dr. Wayne Myrie, outlined the situation with lethal yellowing on Feb. 1 Jamaica House press briefing, which was hosted by Minister with responsibility for Information, Hon. Sandrea Falconer.

Lethal yellowing is caused by a phytoplasma, a specialised bacterium that lives in the sap of the coconut tree. The disease is transferred by vector. 

Dr. Myrie noted that lethal yellowing has been affecting Jamaican coconut palms since 1884, but its spread had been controlled in particular geographical locations, particularly in eastern parishes such as St. Thomas, Portland and St. Mary.

The Ministry, over the years, has embarked on various activities to eradicate the disease, including research on the pathogen, and also on the vector and environmental component of the disease spread.

Dr. Myrie informed that a plant variety that is resistant to the disease has been developed, and these are being made available to farmers on a limited basis, as research and experimentation are ongoing.

In the meantime, the ‘Black’ programme is being undertaken, which entails removing the infected trees, burning them, and replanting healthy trees, as well as carrying out proper cultural practices.  The methodology earns its name from Michael Black, who first started the programme in St. Thomas.

Under the Black approach, a team goes around the island removing infected trees, and distributing seedlings to farmers.  “We have two separate planting programmes – one for the eastern section, and one for the western section,” Mr. Myrie informed.

He asked for the assistance of farmers in removing the trees. “We have close to 3.38 million trees in Jamaica, and many communities with coconut palms, but we are trying our best,” he stated.

The Plant Pathologist emphasised that the pathogen of lethal yellowing diseases is found in the sap of the coconut palm, and therefore planting new trees in the soils from which infected trees were removed, does not affect new trees.

Plants with lethal yellowing see coconuts begin to drop from palms in a process called ‘shelling’. The flower stalks then begin to blacken, and palm fronds (branch) start to yellow (or become greyish-brown), beginning with the older, lower fronds. The spear leaf then collapses and the bud dies. Plants die within three to six months of the disease appearing.


By Alphea Saunders, JIS Senior Reporter