Banana: R.I.P.

They're in trouble. Can biotechnology save the fruit?

By | May 30, 2008

The linkurl:banana; we eat today is not the one your grandparents ate. That one - known as the Gros Michel - was, by all accounts, bigger, tastier, and hardier than the variety we know and love, which is called the Cavendish. The unavailability of the Gros Michel is easily explained: it is virtually extinct. Introduced to our hemisphere in the late 19th century, the Gros Michel was almost immediately hit by a blight that wiped it out by 1960. The Cavendish was adopted at the last minute by the big banana companies - Chiquita and Dole - because it was resistant to that blight, a fungus known as linkurl:Panama; disease. For the past fifty years, all has been quiet in the banana world. Until now.
__Panama disease in Hawaii__
__Photo: Scot Nelson__
Panama disease - or linkurl:__Fusarium__; wilt of banana - is back, and the Cavendish does not appear to be safe from this new strain, which appeared two decades ago in Malaysia, spread slowly at first, but is now moving at a geometrically quicker pace. There is no cure, and nearly every banana scientist says that though Panama disease has yet to hit the banana crops of Latin America, which feed our hemisphere, the question is not if this will happen, but when. Even worse, the malady has the potential to spread to dozens of other banana varieties, including African bananas, the primary source of nutrition for millions of people. linkurl:Crop disease; is only half the problem. The other part is denial. One of the most recent places Panama disease struck was linkurl:Australia.; Three years ago, when I was researching my book on bananas, growers down under were bragging that they'd found a way to control the disease, which first appeared in 1997 near the Northern Territory town of Darwin. "We have developed a rapid and accurate DNA-based diagnostic test...used in the detection and management of outbreaks," asserted a brochure issued by the country's Cooperative Research Centre for Plant Protection.
The Australian management program consisted of quick quarantine of fields that were proven by the test to be infected. But early detection doesn't necessarily buy enough time. The plan came apart in March 2006, when Cyclone Larry ravaged Australia's banana growing regions. High winds destroyed more than 85% of the banana crop, and flooding spread infected water and dirt to the surviving banana trees. An October linkurl:report; from the Australia Broadcasting Company documented the rapid spread of the blight on previously-disease free plantations. Reporter Anne Barker wrote that the "industry, which once had such bright prospects, is now facing collapse." Panama disease hasn't hit our hemisphere yet, and the big banana companies appear unalarmed. Chiquita's 2006 annual report doesn't mention banana disease at all. The company's 2007 end-of-year SEC filing names plant disease as a "risk factor," but only mentions linkurl:black sigatoka,; which can be controlled chemically. Why should it be? After all, Latin America, where we grow all of our bananas, is a hemisphere away from the places where the disease is now spreading. With all that ocean, could the epidemic could actually reach our bananalands? Not only is it possible, it might already be happening. In late December, 2007, Philippine agriculture secretary linkurl:Arthur Yap; announced that the U.S. had agreed to import a large shipment of Cavendish bananas from Philippine plantations (overall, we import about 8.5 billion pounds of bananas each year, all from Latin America).
__Transgenic plants in field, Uganda__
__Photo: Andrew Kiggundu__
Panama disease is so virulent that a __single clump of dirt__ tracked in on a tire tread or a shoe can spark a country-wide outbreak. It isn't hard to imagine that a stray banana box from the Philippines, loaded into a Dole shipping container could be left unloaded at Long Beach, California, and continue on to Guatemala, where it could infect that nation's crop and tear through Latin America. In fact, the original Panama disease outbreak that decimated the Gros Michel almost certainly went from Asia, to the Caribbean, to Central and South America, though the exact path was never determined. The spread of Panama disease from Asia to the banana plantations of the Western Hemisphere is more than imaginable. With shipping containers traveling the world, and bananas crossing hemispheres, it's likely. When the first outbreak of Panama disease hit the Gros Michels of South and Central America, it nearly put the entire industry out of business. Only at the last minute was a substitute banana - the Cavendish - found. The Cavendish was thought to be resistant, and for 50 years, that was true. No longer.
__Transgenic banana plantlet in Belgian lab__
__Photo: Dan Koeppel__
Now, the future of the Cavendish lies in genetic engineering. Scientists are on the way to creating bananas that resist Panama disease in the lab. The problem with these engineered bananas, aside from the fact that they have not yet definitively shown resistance to the disease, is that they lack the other characteristics - ideal ripening speed, a thick skin, and the right taste - that make a banana variety attractive for export. Making a single banana with all of those attributes may take years. Another issue is consumer acceptance: surveys have shown that most shoppers would reject modified bananas, even if they were proven to be safe. Bananas are, however, excellent candidates for genetic modification. They are sterile - no seeds or pollen by which mutations might spread - and reproduce vegetatively. Right now, regulations have prevented even publicly funded research organizations from testing more than a handful of transformed bananas in the field. Most of this research has been conducted under the auspices of linkurl:Bioversity International,; an umbrella group that works mostly on food security issues. The bananas being field tested were developed though a collaborative effort between Ugandan and Belgian scientists in Leuven, Belgium, and are being grown at experimental plots in linkurl:Uganda,; a country where about 80 percent of some local diets is made up of the fruit, and where the consequences of a banana wipe-out would be disastrous. The millions of people like those in Uganda who depend on bananas to survive would be the real beneficiaries of a better banana. There's little time left. If there is a "grail banana," it is likely to be found in the lab. The question is whether we'll let it split from there. __Dan Koeppel is the author of__ linkurl:Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World.; __He spent three years hanging out with banana growers, scientists, and banana consumers around the world. His website is; Dan Koeppel __Corrections (June 3): The original version of this article stated that scientists have created bananas resistant to Panama disease. This has been changed to reflect the fact that definitive tests for Panama disease resistance have not yet been conducted. Also, this article originally said that bananas developed by scientists in Leuven, Belgium were being field tested. While the bananas being tested were indeed developed in Belgium, it was a Ugandan scientist, Geoffrey Arinaitwe, who made the plants as part of a broader collaboration between several groups. Finally, the photo credit for the Ugandan banana field incorrectly read "Rony Swennen." __The Scientist__ regrets these errors.__


Avatar of: Gordon Couger

Gordon Couger

Posts: 23

May 30, 2008

If we don't develop bananas that are resistant to the blight no one will have a choice if they eat bananas or not.\n\nIn Canada where 3 displays of sweet corn were put out one organic, one conventional and one genetically modified along with a neutral explanation of how they were grown the genetically modified corn out sold the others as the consumer seemed to like corn with less pesticide and less impact on the environment over hype and damaged ears or ears that had been sprayed with insecticide.\n\nSo the customer resistance to GM food seems to be strongly related to how they are ask about it. \n\nGordon Couger
Avatar of: JOHN HACHEY


Posts: 4

May 30, 2008

Why not just engineer the resistance into the Cavendish itself and save yourself from having to reinvent the wheel? This product certainly has the potential to be a golden rice like feel-good ambassador for the benefits of genetic engineering,\nespecially in areas that rely on it for sustenance
Avatar of: Ellen Hunt

Ellen Hunt

Posts: 199

May 30, 2008

The anti-GM people are a tiny group of mostly misinformed people that are very aggressive. It's like a religion, and they think they are saving the world from evil. It's ridiculous of course, they are doing no such thing. Many of the people involved in the activist A.L.F. are also anti-GMO. \n\nThere are a few instances in which anti-GM is rational. For instance, farmers being targeted by big ag through lawyers because some of their crop got accidentally cross-fertilized with a GMO crop - they have a legitimate objection. As long as CEOs are going to allow their attorneys to do that sort of outrage against decency and sanity, GMO has a problem. There can be other legitimate objections when genes are inserted that aren't under tissue-type or developmental control so a pesticide like BT toxin is present in the food. \n\nAnother legitimate objection is the corporatization of farming in subsistence farming economies and the added motivation by companies to take over the market for seed and crowd out the variety that makes the biosphere robust. But GMO isn't the primary problem there, because hybrid varieties produced by non-engineering methods have the same motive. This "doomsday vault" for plants is a step toward trying to address this issue. \n\nBut most of it is just ridiculous, ignorant neo-luddite ideas. If scientists are honest about real issues the public is going to believe us more about the non-issues.
Avatar of: Julio Reinecke

Julio Reinecke

Posts: 1

May 31, 2008

I guess most of us have heard the contents of my comment, but we still have no answers. Genetic engineering of plants sounds a lot easier than it really is. Regularly it takes more than a decade before a new variety is even near to wide market introduction\nIf GM crops were about saving the crop only, the discussion would be less agressive. It's the consequences of gene or GM plant patents that need to be of concern to all of us.\nI am not on the hight of the latest developments but my impression is that quite a number of people are critical about plants with pesticide or herbicide resistance logically leading to dependence on the providers of the -cides (often being identical to the GM companies): cui bono?\nI think we all accept that genetic diversity of food plants is the most important protection against pathogens in the long run. GM plants -if commercially successful- will further narrow this diversity unless we see massive international efforts to preserve it.\nWe live in the world we live in. Global food supply needs GM crops. But I firmly believe that we as scientists and as citizens have a duty to see to we do not end up in a situation with a few companies and many stock market traders deciding over well- or not well being of whole countries or regions.\nBananas to have or to have not is NOT the question. Again, we need a management of resources that is not ONLY driven by market and profit mechanisms. This blight can only expand so catastrophically if we do not have other (resistant) varieties being grown at the same time. Standardisation and homogenisation of foods and markets may be good for cheap production and international markets but here we see the price we may have to pay.\nThe banana will not be the last we hear of this.

May 31, 2008

According to the article, the Gros Michel banana is "virtually" extinct. This implies there are a few left. Why not experiment on modifying them? If the experiments work, not only would the bananas be resistant to the disease, the consumer would end up with bigger, tastier fruit.
Avatar of: john thomas

john thomas

Posts: 1

June 2, 2008

OMG I hope this doesnt happen anytime soon. Banana's are like the only fruit I care for and I dont know what I would do without them! Great for potassium they are.\n\nJJ\n
Avatar of: Ned Schmidt

Ned Schmidt

Posts: 1

July 22, 2008

\nThe arguments against GM bananas are all straw dogs.\n\nIf bananas are not genetically modified they may disappear.\n\nWhere is plant diversity then?\n\nHis book is a must read for understanding the natural threats to a food supply that is becoming less and less divese.\n\nned\n

August 7, 2008

I am always welcome for the GM can help the banana.GM technology can only a way for producing RESISTANCE BANANA..................Not any other technology? \n\ni am also doing GM banana research for against BBTV.\n\n\nMY WEB\
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 3

January 2, 2009

I don't know... Genetically modified bananas, that sounds like a slippery slope. :)
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 50

January 2, 2009

The big problem with GM is the blatant and aggressive lobbying that infests even learned societies.\n\nThis isn't a recent phenomenon, but rather a pathological condition that seems to be intrinsic to big technology-based industry. Think of CFCs, tetraethyl lead, hydrogenated fats, washing-up liquid you don't need to rinse off, various food additives.\n\n
Avatar of: Eric Dinsfriend

Eric Dinsfriend

Posts: 1

February 7, 2009

Considering the hundreds of varieties consumed throughout the world by subsistance farmers, perhaps, instead of pushing them out for the cavindish, we should consider the many varieties out there as candidates for breeding programs. People need to learn to accept new fruits.
Avatar of: Carmelo Verdan

Carmelo Verdan

Posts: 1

May 3, 2009

The article is interesting but the scientists are s always formulating chemical pesticides as the solution. When in fact too much use of chemical fertilizer and pesticides are the cause of the problem. The banana disease like you mention are soil borne fungus and virus then it can be irradicated by beneficial microorganism (bmo).I use this 2-3 years ago but somehow they didn"t believe,because this big companies will decrease their earning..I"m a Farmer-Researcher..
Avatar of: Shachi Bhatt

Shachi Bhatt

Posts: 1

November 11, 2010

The banana is not likely to be wiped out so easily...Several Hybrid varieties like Grand Naine and Sona, a local Indian selection are fairly resistant to Panama disease and can even survive Thrips.\n\n
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 1

January 13, 2011

Could all this hoopla about "all bananas being identical", as Koeppel stated during an interview, be connected to the genetic engineering of bananas for inoculating humans via their food supply? This research has been going on for over 12 years and a lot of money is at stake. Koeppel supports GE to "save" bananas...bull. \nWhen I was in Thailand, I ate bananas that were much better than the Cavendish. So what if they are smaller? I have purchased them in my local health food store. The red bananas are an important source of beta carotine. T\nhe fact that there are over 60 varieties of bananas and, they are not identical contrary to Koeppels statements, proves that this is a campaign designed to scare people into accepting Genetic Engineering Vaccinations via our food supply (as Koeppel proposed in a brief Oct/Nov 2010 Organic Gardening article...figure!. This is a direct assault on freedom of religion, such as Seventh Day Adventists, and an assualt upon our rights to choose allopathic medical treatment or an alternative.\nPersonally, I am with Drs. Mae Wan Ho and Vandana Shiva and Jeffry Smith, who oppose GE. Here in MO, our farmers have three monster weeds directly a result of GE. The many Indian farmer suicides resulting from the failure of GE experimental crops is a tragedy. The days of banana plantations and the subjugation of people into servitude, should be long gone. Ding Dong, the Cavendish is dead. Unfortunately this is not true any more than Gros Michael, the variety that Cavendish replace, is "extinct". Eat local!

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