Allaying fears prompted by recent media reports that bananas may be extinct within a decade, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has urged producers to promote greater genetic diversity in commercial bananas.

The French-based International Network for the Improvement of Banana and Plantain last month warned that bananas were in imminent danger of becoming extinct. The Cavendish banana, found mostly on western supermarket shelves, has been under attack in some Asian countries from a new strain of Fusarium wilt, also known as ‘Panama disease’. ( members click here for more information).

However, the FAO pointed out that small-scale farmers around the world grow a wide range of bananas that are not threatened by the disease currently attacking bananas sold mostly in Europe and North America, and urged farmers to concentrate on diversity.

“What is happening is the inevitable consequence of growing one genotype on a large scale,” said Eric Kueneman, Chief of the FAO’s Crop and Grassland Service. The Cavendish banana is a ‘dessert type’ banana that is cultivated mostly by the large-scale banana companies for international trade. The Cavendish banana is important in world trade, but accounts for only 10% of bananas produced and consumed globally, according to FAO. Virtually all commercially important plantations grow this single genotype. Its vulnerability is therefore inevitable and not unexpected. The Cavendish’s predecessor, the Gros Michel, suffered the same fate at the hands of fungal diseases, so “this is a warning that we may need to find a replacement for the Cavendish banana in the future,” the FAO said.

The agency added that new breeding methods and tools, including biotechnology, would facilitate the development of resistant bananas for cultivation. However, it also stressed the positive role that could be played by farmers and distributors promoting greater diversity in bananas, especially export bananas.

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