Bananas Not Getting Extinct

At the beginning of the year, there were several reports in various news media around the world of an impending extinction of the banana crop. These were based on various interpretations of an article that was published in New Scientist, a science journal.

However, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), it is only the Cavendish, a dessert type of banana, which is mostly exported to Europe and North America, that is under threat in some Asian countries from a new strain of fusarium wilt known as "Panama disease" or Race 4.

Race 4 is a soil-borne fungus that attacks roots and cannot be controlled by fungicides. If this disease were to spread to the commercial plantations, it could wipe out the variety. In the 1960s, a variety called the Gros Michel suffered a similar fate.

Though important in world trade, the Cavendish accounts for only 10% of the bananas that are produced and consumed globally. This type of banana is mainly grown on a large-scale basis. However, there is a vast range of other varieties that are largely grown by smallholder farmers.

Only 13% of the bananas grown are exported while the remaining 87% never leave the countries in which they are produced. Bananas and plantains are the staple food for half a billion people, grown by farmers in 120 countries. In eastern and central Africa, the crop is mostly produced in Burundi, D. R. Congo, Ethiopia, Kenya, Madagascar, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda. The small-holder farmers, who feed the local populations, have maintained a broad genetic pool of about 500 varieties. This can be used for future improvements to the crop.

Against this backdrop, FAO has made the following recommendations. One, the development of more diversity, especially in bananas produced for export. Two, promoting awareness of the inevitable consequences of a narrow genetic base in crops. Three, strengthening plant breeding programmes in developing countries for not only bananas but also other basic staple crops.

Nevertheless, diseases and pests are increasingly a threat to the world's supply of bananas. These range from the black sigatoka fungus, which is prevalent in almost every banana-growing region to parasitic worms, weevils and viruses, such as the banana streak virus. This is why disease- and pest-resistant bananas need to be developed.

But this presents some difficulties because banana is essentially a clonal crop with many sterile species. It is propagated as suckers from the base of the parent plant, making progress through conventional breeding slow and complex. In light of this, new methods and tools including biotechnology will be helpful. Already, a research consortium of international institutions is working to sequence the banana genome. Known as "the Global Musa Genomics Consortium", it involves scientists with expertise in genomics and plant biology from both the developed and developing countries. It is expected that the outputs of this effort will point the way forward in formulating solutions to the threats to banana production.

This article was partly sourced from Kuza newsletter, issue No. 16.
Article courtesy of Agriforum, http://www.asareca.org/agriforum/

September 2003