Responding to recent media reports that bananas may be extinct within ten years, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has urged producers to promote greater genetic diversity in commercial bananas.
The announcement follows recent press coverage that edible bananas may disappear if urgent action is not taken. The problem is that the banana we eat is a sterile, seedless fruit, lacks genetic diversity, and its survival is threatened by blight. Although there is the strong argument that biotechnology and genetic manipulation could save the fruit, current consumer concerns over GM foods could hamper any such research.
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. The Cavendish banana, found mostly on western supermarket shelves, has been under attack in some Asian countries by a new strain of Fusarium wilt, also known as 'Panama disease.'
"What is happening is the inevitable consequence of growing one genotype on a large scale," said Eric Kueneman, chief of 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 per cent of bananas produced and consumed globally, according to the FAO. Virtually all commercially important plantations grow this single genotype. Its vulnerability is inevitable and not unexpected, writes the FAO. 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,' added the FAO.
So far the problem has only been seen in southeast Asia. However, Mahmoud Solh, Director of FAO's Plant Production and Protection division warned:"The consequences of the problem will be more dramatic if this phenomenon reaches Latin America and the Caribbean, where banana is a major plantation crop and a source of employment and income for a large section of the population."
Fortunately, the FAO stressed, small-scale farmers around the world have maintained a broad genetic pool which can be used for future banana crop improvement. Banana is essentially a clonal crop with many sterile species, which makes progress through conventional breeding slow and difficult. Because of this, new breeding methods and tools, including biotechnology, will be helpful to develop resistant bananas for cultivation. This does not necessarily mean the use of transgenics, FAO said.
The organisation is calling for the development of more diversity in the banana, especially for export bananas and promoting awareness of the inevitable consequences of a narrow genetic base in crops and the need for a broader genetic base for commercial bananas.