The French-based International Network for the Improvement of Banana and Plantain have warned that bananas are in imminent danger of going extinct. In an unusual twist on a familiar story, genetic modification could well be their only hope. However, producers are worried that consumers would reject GM bananas.
If there was such a record as ‘Smash Hits 1923’, one of the tracks on it would surely be Sydney Bechet’s “Yes, we have no bananas”. Someone in the music industry would do well to release a cover version of this classic jazz track on the occasion of its ninetieth birthday in 2013, because if banana expert Dr Emile Frison is to be believed, the edible banana will become extinct around that time.
The cultivated banana currently faces several threats. Panama disease – caused by a soil fungus – wiped out the Gros Michel variety in the 1950s. The resistant Cavendish variety replaced the Gros Michel on plantations. However, lurking in the undergrowth was another fungus, black Sigatoka, which is currently decimating the world’s bananas.
Sigatoka is only contained by enormous amounts of fungicides. Unfortunately, as the fungus grows resistant to the fungicides, the bananas are becoming more vulnerable.
Strains of plant or animal species are often eradicated in this way, but the situation is rather more desperate for the banana. Usually, resistant strains of the species are bred by conventional means and replace the previous one. However, every edible banana tree in the world is a clone of a cutting from an ancient naturally mutated one. Edible bananas are sterile, and there are no resistant strains.
The disappearance of bananas would have severe consequences. While they fill supermarket shelves in the prosperous West, they are also a staple food for half a billion people in Africa and Asia.
But Dr Frison holds out a hope for the seedless edible banana in the form of genetic manipulation: it may well be possible to genetically modify bananas to resist Panama disease and Sigatoka. Yet consumers’ hostility to GM foods renders this approach unpopular with producers. However, they may not have the luxury of choice in this instance, as only science can stop our bananas from splitting.
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