An article in the British New Scientist magazine, picked up and broadcast around Europe, created alarm among consumers when it warned that the banana might be at risk of extinction.
The concerns voiced in New Scientist are not groundless: the world’s major export banana, the Cavendish, is a particularly vulnerable variety. It is threatened by two adversaries, one old and one new. The old problem is Sigatoka, a fungal disease that has been plaguing growers for decades. Powerful fungicides have been developed to protect the Cavendish banana, by applying as many as 40 sprayings a year (and since the product has a cycle of 18 months, the bananas we eat are exposed to 60 anti-Sigatoka treatments).
The new problem is a Fusarium disease known as Race 4. Unlike Sigatoka, which attacks leaves, Race 4 is a soil-borne fungus that attacks roots and cannot be controlled by fungicides. It has already appeared in Australia, South Africa and parts of Asia. The main commercial plantations growing bananas for export are in Latin America and the Caribbean – it would appear that it is only a matter of time before Race 4 spreads there too. If a solution is not found, it will be a disaster similar to when the Gros Michel variety was wiped out in the 1960s by another form of Panama disease. At that time it was the Cavendish variety that took over from Gros Michel, and it now seems that it is Cavendish’s turn to give way to another variety that is resistant to Race 4.
An additional issue is that cultivated bananas are sterile and do not have seeds (as New Scientist quipped, ‘Despite its unmistakably phallic appearance, the banana hasn’t had sex for thousands of years’). Since genetic improvement using traditional cross-breeding is not possible, it is propagated from cuttings or by replanting the suckers produced by larger plants. The only way forward would seem to be a solution involving genetic modification, and its supporters emphasise the fact that – since pollination is not involved – these GMO would not present any environmental risk.
But what New Scientist and other publications have not explained is that Cavendish is not the banana. And what the developed world eats every day is not grown in all banana plantations. It is true that Cavendish is the only banana exported to developed countries, but it is only one of 500 varieties of banana grown in the world. Bananas grown for export account for only about 13% of global production (12.5 million tonnes, compared to total production of about 96 million tonnes).
In developing countries, where the remaining 87% of bananas (and other 499 varieties) in the world is grown and consumed, bananas are the fourth most important food after rice, wheat and maize. Women in developing countries know which varieties of banana to use for different purposes—which to cook, which to use in puddings, which to eat in savoury dishes, which to simply use as fruit. Farmers in developing countries can distinguish different varieties according to the soil where they are grown, altitude and resistance to various atmospheric agents. And it is here that 99.5% of the banana-eaters in the world live, consuming varieties of bananas that have been selected by them and grown for centuries.
It is certainly true, as stated by INIBAP (The International Network for the Improvement of Banana and Plantain), that it would be desirable for more funds to be available for research into the banana, given that there are only five scientists worldwide working to breed improved bananas. But the reason justifying this effort and research should be that the most popular fruit in the world is one that enables thousands of families to survive in tropical countries, not that there are concerns that the attractive (and increasingly toxic and less flavoursome) Cavendish banana is going to disappear from supermarket shelves in rich countries.
Improved varieties could be cultivated with significantly reduced pesticide use, which would be a benefit for the health of consumers and the planet, and would provide a marked saving (or greater profit margin) for growers. At present the only country to have large-scale cultivations of improved bananas (11,000 hectares) is Cuba, where farmers have recorded increased crop yields and annual savings of more than 3 million dollars due to reduced spraying.
So if people seriously got down to identifying resistance in existing varieties, instead of jumping at the chance of supporting genetically-modified food, it would be a better use of money and we would be doing a favour to the producers of non-export bananas.
The problem is not that bananas are going to disappear. There are good reasons to suppose that bananas will continue to feed the world for many years to come. The problem is that research is diminishing, and the few scientists studying the banana have never managed to secure coverage and attention in the media—unlike the problems the lucrative market in the developed world may have to address.
Cinzia Scaffidi, a journalist, is the head organizer of the Slow Food Award for the Defense of Biodiversity
Translation by Ronnie Richards