International Network for the Improvement of Banana and Plantain (INIBP)
January 21, 2003
INIBAP, Montpellier, 21 January 2003 The world’s most popular fruit and a basic staple food for hundreds of millions of people in the developing world the banana is under severe threat from virulent pests and diseases. An article in the 16 January edition of the New Scientist magazine has warned of the risk of shoppers finding the shelves empty when they go to buy their weekly bunch. Articles and broadcasts from around the world have followed with alarming and sometimes exaggerated stories of extinction.
While this helps to raise awareness of the importance of bananas in the world and the threats faced by banana farmers, it is important not to lose sight of the facts and to point to the positive progress that researchers are making to address these challenges.
The New Scientist article focussed on concerns over the spread of a new form of Panama disease (Fusarium wilt) - known as race 4 - which is threatening the Cavendish variety, the world’s major export banana. The disease has spread through plantations in Australia, South Africa and parts of Asia. It is only a matter of time before race 4 reaches the hub of commercial production in Latin America and the Caribbean.
The Cavendish took over as the No. 1 dessert banana in the 1960s from the Gros Michel, a variety that had dominated world markets until it fell prey to an earlier form of Panama disease. So fears are justified.
Cavendish bananas are already under attack from another fungal disease, black Sigatoka, but are protected commercially by as many as 40 sprayings a year of fungicide. The sprayings are not only expensive, making up a quarter of production costs, but present a serious risk to workers and a threat to the environment.
Unlike black Sigatoka, which attacks leaves, race 4 is a soil-borne fungus that attacks roots and cannot be controlled by fungicides. If race 4 reaches the commercial plantations, it is likely to wipe out Cavendish just as the earlier disease eradicated Gros Michel. The only option is to find another variety that resists race 4.
While the loss of the Cavendish would hurt consumers in developed countries, diseases have an even more severe impact on other types of banana, of which there are more than 500 varieties. Banana exports make up just 13% of world production. The other 87% represents bananas that never leave the country where they are produced. In the developing world banana is the most important food in terms of production value after rice, wheat and maize. Most banana farmers subsist on very limited margins and cannot afford the expensive chemicals to keep diseases in check. Epidemic diseases that attack these bananas undermine the very roots of food and income security for millions of people in the developing world. New resistant varieties are needed urgently.
What makes it difficult to breed new, improved varieties is that cultivated bananas are sterile and do not have seeds. They are propagated as suckers, or shoots, which arise from the base of the plant underground. There is no easy way to cross one variety with another. It is only in the past 10 years, after more than 80 years of research, that improved varieties acceptable for large-scale production have been made available.
Only five scientists, globally, are presently working to breed improved bananas. Such a meagre research effort is decidedly out of proportion to the scale and importance of the problem. But currently there is alarmingly little investment in banana research compared to the global significance of the crop. This must be reversed if the world’s most popular fruit, an important survival food for families in the tropics, is not to decline further.
With the progress already made, if we can mobilise new and significant investment, there is every reason to believe that the banana will provide food and income security for those families for many years to come
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Last Updated on 2/24/03