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The banana is among the world’s oldest crops. Agricultural scientists believe that the first edible banana was discovered around ten thousand years ago. It has been at an evolutionary standstill ever since it was first propagated in the jungles of South-East Asia at the end of the last ice age. Normally the wild banana, a giant jungle herb called Musa acuminata, contains a mass of hard seeds that make the fruit virtually inedible. But now and then, hunter- gatherers must have discovered rare mutant plants that produced seedless, edible fruits. Geneticists now know that the vast majority of these soft-fruited I plants resulted from genetic accidents that gave their cells three copies of each chromosome instead of the usual two. This imbalance prevents seeds and pollen from developing normally, rendering the mutant plants sterile. And that is why some scientists believe the world’s most popular fruit could be doomed. It lacks the genetic diversity to fight off pests and diseases that are invading the banana plantations of Central America and the smallholdings of Africa and Asia alike.
In some ways, the banana today resembles the potato before blight brought famine to Ireland a century and a half ago. But “it holds a lesson for other crops, too,” says Emile Frison, top banana at the International Network for the Improvement of Banana and Plantain in Montpellier, France. “The state of the banana,” Frison warns, “can teach a broader lesson: the increasing standardisation of food crops round the world is threatening their ability to adapt and survive.”
The first Stone Age plant breeders cultivated these sterile freaks by replanting cuttings from their stems. And the descendants of those original cuttings are the bananas we still eat today. Each is a virtual clone, almost devoid of genetic diversity. And that uniformity makes it ripe for disease like no other crop on Earth. Traditional varieties of sexually reproducing crops have always had a much broader genetic base, and the genes will recombine in new arrangements in each generation. This gives them much greater flexibility in evolving responses to disease – and far more genetic resources to draw on in the face of an attack. But that advantage is fading fast, as growers increasingly plant the same few, high-yielding varieties. Plant breeders work feverishly to maintain resistance in these standardised crops. Should these efforts falter, yields of even the most productive crop could swiftly crash. “When some pest or disease comes along, severe epidemics can occur,” says Geoff Hawtin, director of the Rome-based International Plant Genetic Resources Institute.
The banana is an excellent case in point. Until the 1950s, one variety, the Gros Michel, dominated the world’s commercial banana business. Found by French botanists in Asia in the 1820s, the Gros Michel was by all accounts a fine banana, richer and sweeter than today’s standard banana and without the latter’s bitter aftertaste when green. But it was vulnerable to a soil fungus that produced a wilt known as Panama disease. “Once the fungus gets into the soil, it remains there for many years. There is nothing farmers can do. Even chemical spraying won’t get rid of it,” says Rodomiro Ortiz, director of the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture in Ibadan, Nigeria. So plantation owners played a running game, abandoning infested fields and moving to “clean” land – until they ran out of clean land in the 1950s and had to abandon the Gros Michel. Its successor, and still the reigning commercial king, is the Cavendish banana, a 19th-century British discovery from southern China. The Cavendish is resistant to Panama disease and, as a result, it literally saved the international banana industry. During the 1960s, it replaced the Gros Michel on supermarket shelves. If you buy a banana today, it is almost certainly a Cavendish. But even so, it is a minority in the world’s banana crop.
Half a billion people in Asia and Africa depend on bananas. Bananas provide the largest source of calories and are eaten daily. Its name is synonymous with food. But the day of reckoning may be coming for the Cavendish and its indigenous kin. Another fungal disease, black Sigatoka, has become a global epidemic since its first appearance in Fiji in 1963. Left to itself, black Sigatoka – which causes brown wounds on leaves and premature fruit ripening – cuts fruit yields by 50 to 70 per cent and reduces the productive lifetime of banana plants from 30 years to as little as 2 or 3. Commercial growers keep black Sigatoka at bay by a massive chemical assault. Forty sprayings of fungicide a year is typical. But despite the fungicides, diseases such as black Sigatoka are getting more and more difficult to control. “As soon as you bring in a new fungicide, they develop resistance,” says Frison. “One thing we can be sure of is that black Sigatoka won’t lose in this battle.” Poor farmers, who cannot afford chemicals, have it even worse. They cap do little more than watch their plants die. “Most of the banana fields in Amazonia have already been destroyed by the disease,” says Luadir Gasparotto, Brazil’s leading banana pathologist with the government research agency EMBRAPA. Production is likely to fall by 70 per cent as the disease spreads, he predicts. The only option will be to find a new variety.
But how? Almost all edible varieties are susceptible to the diseases, so growers cannot simply change to a different banana. With most crops, such a threat would unleash an army of breeders, scouring the world for resistant relatives whose traits they can breed into commercial varieties. Not so with the banana. Because all edible varieties are sterile, bringing in new genetic traits to help cope with pests and diseases is nearly impossible. Nearly, but not totally. Very rarely, a sterile banana will experience a genetic accident that allows an almost normal seed to develop, giving breeders a tiny window for improvement. Breeders at the Honduran Foundation of Agricultural Research have tried to exploit this to create disease-resistant varieties. Further back-crossing with wild bananas yielded a new seedless banana resistant to both black Sigatoka and Panama disease.
Neither Western supermarket consumers nor peasant growers like the new hybrid. Some accuse it of tasting more like an apple than a banana. Not surprisingly, the majority of plant breeders have till now turned their backs on the banana and got to work on easier plants. And commercial banana companies are now washing their hands of the whole breeding effort, preferring to fund a search for new fungicides instead. “We supported a breeding programme for 40 years, but it wasn’t able to develop an alternative to the Cavendish. It was very expensive and we got nothing back,” says Ronald Romero, head of research at Chiquita, one of the Big Three companies that dominate the international banana trade.
Last year, a global consortium of scientists led by Frison announced plans to sequence the banana genome within five years. It would be the first edible fruit to be sequenced. Well, almost edible. The group will actually be sequencing inedible wild bananas from East Asia because many of these are resistant to black Sigatoka. If they can pinpoint the genes that help these wild varieties to resist black Sigatoka, the protective genes could be introduced into laboratory tissue cultures of cells from edible varieties. These could then be propagated into new disease-resistant plants and passed on to farmers.
It sounds promising, but the big banana companies have, until now, refused to get involved in GM research for fear of alienating their customers. “Biotechnology is extremely expensive and there are serious questions about consumer acceptance,” says David McLaughlin, Chiquita’s senior director for environ- mental affairs. With scant funding from the companies, the banana genome researchers are focusing on the other end of the spectrum. Even if they can identify the crucial genes, they will be a long way from developing new varieties that smallholders will find suitable and affordable. But whatever biotechnology’s academic interest, it is the only hope for the banana. Without it, banana production worldwide will head into a tailspin. We may even see the extinction of the banana as both a lifesaver for hungry and impoverished Africans and the most popular product on the world’s supermarket shelves.
Complete the sentences below with NO MORE THAN THREE WORDS from the passage for each answer.
Write your answers in boxes 1-3 on your answer sheet.