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Points of View
The future of bananas

An excellent source of carbohydrate, fibre, vitamins and minerals, bananas are the fourth most valuable food in developing countries after rice, wheat and milk. Indeed in Uganda, where bananas are consumed in the largest quantities, the local word 'matooke' means 'food'. In exports, it also ranks fourth amongst all agricultural commodities and is traded in greater quantities than any other fruit at a total of $2.5 billion annually. And yet, only 10% of global production is destined for international markets - the rest is consumed at local or national level. In recent years, pests and disease have plagued bananas. Black Sigatoka disease is renowned for the damage it is has done and it is controlled only in commercial plantations by frequent application of fungicides. But other pests and diseases also impact on this curvaceous commodity. In January 2003, New Scientist reported that 'the world's favourite fruit is about to disappear'. In response, New Agriculturist, asked those connected with the crop, for their Points of View on the future of bananas.

Threat of extinction?

"It's true that bananas, especially export Cavendish, are threatened by a variety of diseases and research on their control is warranted. However, the situation is nowhere as grave as you (New Scientist report) suggested. For instance, the form of Panama disease that attacks Cavendish in the tropics and endangers commercial production in the Latin America/Caribbean region is still only found in a few countries, notably Malaysia and Indonesia."
David Jones, Editor, 'Diseases of Banana, Abaca and Enset' in letter to New Scientist 18/02/03back to top

"While we cannot approve of all the alarmist and exaggerated titles and citations that have been made in the press, we at least hope that all the concern that has been raised in the press will lead to the realisation that the investment in banana research is totally disproportionate with the importance of the crop and that finally this situation will be corrected."
Emile Frison, Director General, International Network for the Improvement of Banana and Plantain (INIBAP)back to top

"Diseases are, and will remain, major constraints to both export and subsistence production of banana, and there is no doubt that Black Sigatoka and Panama disease constitute the most important threats. However, it is unlikely that these problems will cause production to decrease greatly in the next decade, let alone that the crop will become extinct. But development of new hybrid bananas, as well as those produced via genetic transformation, must continue in order to supply producers with productive cultivars that resist important diseases, nematodes and insects."
Randy C. Ploetz, Professor, University of Florida's Tropical Research and Education Center quoted from 'Plant pathologists unpeel rumors of banana extinction' 14/02/03back to top

"The irony is that the immediate threat to the Windward islands is not disease but the loss of their only export market - Europe. Caribbean producers lack economies of scale and cannot compete with the low-cost fruit of larger plantations. If the vast plantations in Latin America choose protection from disease via plant genetic manipulation, it will be vital to ensure the survival of the industry in the Caribbean as an alternative source of supply. It would be sensible therefore for the EU to ensure that Caribbean bananas, which are safe, are not squeezed out."
Edwin Laurent, Permanent Representative of Saint Lucia to the WTO in letter to the Guardian, 22/01/03back to top

Value of diversity

"The industry has not learned the mistakes of depending up on one cultivar. Years ago it used to be a variety called Gros Michel and now it's the variety Cavendish and we cannot produce Cavendish without a heavy regime of pesticide. There is an enormous diversity that could be used and could be delivered on our markets and could be useful money earning exports for many of these countries. And indeed Uganda could produce bananas or products from bananas with export potential. I'm not saying that they would want to compete with the big large-scale fresh fruit market trade but there are a number of different varieties which have interest in different ways of preparation and in different flavours. If we grew a greater diversity of types which will have disease resistances, by growing these in mixed cultivations the progress of some of these epidemics could be halted anyway. So the message then for the future, for the next 20 years must be to be growing a much wider diversity of banana types."
Simon Gowen, Project Leader for Banana Research for DFID Crop Protection Programme, University of Readingback to top

"I don't believe the banana will be out soon. I think because there is a wide range of clones out there again which can be used on the different conditions. And what we have to do is to work on the consumer end a bit to make people more aware that there are different bananas, different tastes, different shapes so that we don't have just one standard, that we have a much broader selection. And I think that would help farmers also grow different clones and not end up being dependent on one banana only which if one gets a cough everybody dies."
Hans Herren, Director General, International Centre for Insect Physiology & Ecology (ICIPE)back to top

"Products of the breeding programs will play increasingly important roles in subsistence agriculture. Whether new hybrids are used eventually to replace the Cavendish cultivars that are used by the export trades, however, remains to be seen…. Yet, as fungicides continue to lose their effectiveness against black Sigatoka, and as the practice of fungicidal disease control becomes more expensive and less appealing to consumers in the importing countries, the trades may eventually be forced into making the difficult transition away from the Cavendish clones."
Randy Ploetz, Tropical Research and Education Center, University of Florida quoted from feature article "The most important disease of a most important fruit"back to top

Need for further research

"The effort that is behind the breeding is absolutely out of proportion with the need. While there are hundreds of varieties of different types of bananas that would need improvement there are only five breeding programmes, each with one breeder, in the entire world. So if you compare that with the hundreds of breeders that are working on the other major staples like rice or wheat you have an idea on the lack of investment made in banana research."
Emile Frison, Director General, International Network for the Improvement of Banana and Plantain (INIBAP)back to top

"Where I think research perhaps should be better developed and more concentrated is on the understanding of the use of bananas in the livelihoods systems of farmers. Bananas have multiple uses within the household for fencing, for roofing, for beer making, for gin making, as animal food, for making ropes, for crop protection. I think only by understanding those multiple roles and perhaps the valuation of those multiple roles will we see really how essential bananas are in a society, such as is found in Uganda. And then have the ability to translate some of those fascinating local technologies to other societies and other situations."
Michael Stocking, Overseas Development Group, University of East Anglia, UKback to top

"Good agronomy, basic principles like crop rotation, would go a long way in alleviating some of these disease problems we have in a banana production because it is not done really in the best possible way. Bananas react very well to soil management and I think that should be really researched a whole lot more."
Hans Herren, Director General, International Centre for Insect Physiology & Ecology (ICIPE)back to top

"The market opportunities for bananas and banana products will surely change. I believe that a study of the food use, cooked versus dessert would be interesting. I suspect that the market for dessert bananas will increase and I can see a greater demand for the ripe fruit in Kampala, for instance. It is interesting that farmers in western Uganda are exporting Gros Michel (known locally as Bogoya), a dessert fruit, to Nairobi, a wealthy consumer niche. The Uganda National Banana Research Programme is already exploring the potential for other uses for which new varieties might be more appropriate."
Simon Gowen, Project Leader for Banana Research for DFID Crop Protection Programme, University of Readingback to top

GM for bananas?

"I think actually out there, there are a huge number of cultivars. And if only we were to look at them properly, look at their particular roles, look at their particular disease resistances, we probably wouldn't have to apply GM because the raw material is there already"
Michael Stocking, Overseas Development Group, University of East Anglia, UKback to top

"Every day hundreds of thousands of banana plantation workers across the world suffer the consequences of aerially applied chemicals to control fungus disease. We see skin and eye problems, cancers, even birth defects as a result of the deluge of pesticides sprayed on the lands which grow our favourite fruit….Governments, industry and scientists need to get together to agree public and private investment in research on varieties which are not chemical junkies and don't depend on genetic modification."
Alistair Smith, International Co-ordinator, Banana Link , in online news item "No more bananas - it's no joke!"

"Genetic engineering can only introduce single traits, which mean that it would only resolve the immediate disease problem and will run into the same resistance treadmill that the chemical approach has."
Gundula Azeez of the UK Soil Association, 'Can scientists find a way to keep the fruit slipping into extinction', Boston Globe 18/2/2003back to top

"GM technology needs to be looked at case by case. For banana it is appropriate and the reasons I give as support are: one, the most popular types of bananas cannot be improved using any other means, they can only be improved using genetic engineering methods. The few bananas that can be improved using conventional means still have a problem of taste. The farmers are demanding that they want a banana which tastes exactly like the matooke they are used to. And this taste you will never get using conventional breeding. Many people are against GM plants because they fear that the genes will escape from the GM crops into the environment. The banana, by being an infertile plant, once genes are inside the banana they will never get out."
Wilberforce Tushemereirwe, Head, National Banana Research Programme, Ugandaback to top

"The assertion that without genomic research banana production worldwide will "head into a tailspin" is also hard to believe. Sterility of the domesticated banana has been used to advocate genomic research coupled with genetic transformation as the only way forward. This may be true for the Cavendish, but not for every one of the 400 to 500 genetically distinct clones thought to grow worldwide. A number are fertile and have been used successfully in conventional breeding programmes. It may even be possible to breed a disease-resistant dessert banana to replace Cavendish using fertile, natural mutants of Gros Michel, the old banana of the trades. While I believe genomic research and transformation work to be worthwhile, let's get the story straight."
David Jones, Editor, 'Diseases of Banana, Abaca and Enset' in letter to New Scientist 18/02/03back to top

"Greens say genetically manipulating crops narrows the genetic base. Sometime it does. But in the case of banana we are broadening it."
Rodomiro Ortiz, Deputy Director General, Research for Development, International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA)back to top

"Biotechnology has a lot of potential for bananas, for example, increasing resistance. Once we achieve resistance for all major constraints, which are Black Sigatoka, banana weevils and nematodes, we will increase banana production and then we will be able to increase food security in Uganda."
Geoffrey Arinaitwe, Biotechnology PhD student, National Banana Research Programme, Ugandaback to top

"Bananas are very easy to propagate because they are propagated by suckers. All the farmer needs is say one plant and within three years he will produce enough plants probably to cover half an acre or even an acre. So it will be very cheap. So producing the first plant will be very expensive but once that plant is available it will be very, very cheap and affordable for smallholder farmers."
Wilberforce Tushemereirwe, Head, National Banana Research Programme, Ugandaback to top

"Biotechnology to produce GM bananas resistant to fungi is expensive and there are serious questions about consumer acceptance." David McLaughlin, senior director of environmental affairs for the banana company Chiquita. Independent, 16 January 2003back to top

"Transgenic plants offer new opportunities to help provide food security for all. The challenge is how to make this technology appropriate for the developing world as soon as possible."
Howard J Atkinson, Centre for Plant Biochemistry and Biotechnology, University of Leedsback to top