"In some ways, the banana today resembles the potato before blight brought famine to Ireland a century and a half ago."
New Scientist magazine

The world's favourite fruit, the banana, is under threat from two nasty little fungal diseases known as Panama disease and black Sigatoka and so virulent and nasty are these little blighters that it is feared that the banana might well disappear altogether in the next ten years.

As any keen gardener will tell you a great number of cultivars, i.e. cultivated varieties of plants are all effectively clones of one single plant, propagated by a variety of techniques. The same applies for commercial agriculture and horticulture, even more so in fact, as commercial growers prize uniformity above all else, where produce is all of a similar size and quality and more importantly is ready for harvesting at the same time.

This is all very well in the short term, and keeps prices down at the supermarket, but the lack of genetic diversity amongst commercial crops makes them susceptible to attacks from parasites and predators. Which is exactly why the banana is now currently one of the most heavily sprayed crops in the world as the growers try, with diminishing success, and at weekly intervals, to keep both Panama disease and black Sigatoka at bay. (And incidentally poisoning their plantation workers in the process.)

One of the main problems is that the main commercial varieties of banana such as the Cavendish which is the main variety exported to the Western, are all sterile - they have three sets of chromosomes instead of two and so cannot reproduce sexually. Help is at hand and there is an organisation dedicated to saving the banana, the International Network for the Improvement of Banana and Plantain, based in Montpellier in France which hopes to strike it lucky and breed some new varieties before the last banana tree finally succumbs.

Another possible saviour is the Global Musa Genomics Consortium which intends to map the genome sequence for a wild banana within the next five years, (and post all the gene sequences on the web as soon as they've done them.). This raises the possibility that some bright spark will be able to gentically modify one of the existing varities so that it has inbuilt resistence to the current fungal plagues.

This will not of course please every one. Even the growers are worried that those two magic letters "G" and "M" might frighten off Western consumers and are putting their faith in better fungicides. Yeah, better chemicals and more of 'em please.


More exciting banana information at International Network for the Improvement of Banana and Plantain website at http://www.inibap.org/homepage.htm or the politically correct Banana Link organisation ("working for sustainable production and trade in bananas") at http://www.bananalink.org.uk/


From reports The Guardian the BBC news service and the New Scientist magazine.