"Transgenics will not save the banana"
By Julio Godoy*
In the wake of the storm caused by an article in New Scientist magazine, which predicts the disappearance within 10 years of a leading variety of the banana, the international organization tracking this fruit clarifies its stance in an exclusive dialogue with Tierramérica.
PARIS – Neither pesticides nor genetic manipulation will save the Cavendish banana from disappearing, says scientist Jean Vincent Escalant, research coordinator for the International Network for Improvement of the Banana and Plantain (INIBAP), following the uproar caused by the announcement of this fruit's imminent extinction.
In mid-January, Emile Frison, INIBAP director, warned that the Cavendish, the banana variety most widely consumed in the industrialized world, could disappear within the decade due to the onslaught of the fusarium fungus, against which pesticides have proved useless. Frison said, in an article published by New Scientist ("Going Bananas", Jan 18, 2003), that the only option is to find a new resistant variety.
The story made it seem as though Frison, who is leading the efforts to decipher the fruit's genome, is staking bets on genetic modification to save the banana.
"Beyond academic interest in biotechnology, Frison sees it as the only hope for the banana," concludes the article.
But Escalant says, "New Scientist published a set of opinions apparently in favor of genetic manipulation, but leading readers to believe that INIBAP was the source of that information. Which it wasn't. We are convinced that the conventional crossbreeding methods are the most efficient in the long term."
A PhD in plant physiology, university professor and author of numerous scientific publications, Escalant, 44, spoke with Tierramérica in an exclusive interview to set the story straight.
The article published by New Scientist sounded an alarm about the extinction of the Cavendish banana. Is it founded? Or is it an exaggeration?
I have to admit that we used a title that was a bit exaggerated, but we did so because we wanted to call attention to a real problem that the banana growers have been facing for several years in Asia, Australia and Africa. It is the fusarium fungus, which causes the so-called "race 4" of Panama disease and attacks the Cavendish variety of banana. We fear that in the short term this disease will expand in Latin America and the Caribbean as well.
What kinds of reactions did you get after the story was published?
Most have been positive and come from researchers in banana-producing countries, who say that the article was useful for convincing governments and other institutions to step up research efforts against the disease. The negative reactions are from people and agencies who think we are greatly overstating the problem. They especially reproach us for a false impression, given by the New Scientist, that we support genetic manipulation of the banana as the best solution against the disease. What the editors of New Scientist did was to publish a set of opinions apparently in favor of genetic modification, but leading readers to understand that INIBAP was the source of that information. Which it wasn't. We are convinced that the conventional crossbreeding methods are the most efficient in the long term.
Are there similarities between the danger facing the Cavendish today and the extinction of the Gros Michel variety 50 years ago?
Yes. In the 1950s, the Gros Michel was the most grown banana variety in the world. But then emerged the first strain of Panama disease, also a fungus, which forced nearly all growers around the world to replant hundreds of hectares of Gros Michel with the Cavendish, which was resistant to the disease. In less than 10 years, the Gros Michel disappeared. We want to prevent the same thing from happening to the Cavendish. The problem is much more serious today because we don't have a banana variety with which to replace it.
How is the fusarium fungus disseminated?
The fungus lives in the soil and penetrates the plant through lesions in the roots or leaves. Inside the plant it spreads through the vascular system. The result is blockages that don't permit the sap cannot circulate through the plant, ultimately killing the banana tree.
Is there an effective pesticide available?
No, but even if there were it would be very problematic. The intensive use of pesticides has negative secondary effects on the environment, in addition to the high financial costs, which make them prohibitive for small and medium growers.
And genetic modification?
It isn't a long-term solution either. With current knowledge of genetic modification, scientists would only be able to intervene in one or two genes of the banana. Any pathogenic agent, not only the fusarium fungus, would need very little time to overcome such a simple genetic blockade.
Does an alternative exist for combating the fungus?
Yes, conventional biological crossbreeding, which our institute is promoting in Latin America and Africa. The bananas we eat are a sterile fruit. Biologists can artificially fertilize certain varieties of the banana, using large quantities of pollen. This is how we obtain a fertile female variety, which we cross with wild male banana plants, which are resistant to race 4 of Panama disease, but are not edible. From the cross of artificially fertilized female banana plants and wild male banana plants, we could obtain a variety that is both edible and immune to the disease.
What is needed to achieve this?
Finances. The banana is the fourth leading plant-based food in the world, after rice, maize and wheat. But while nearly a thousand institutes around the world worry about increasing the food security of rice, there are only five specializing in the banana: the Honduran Agricultural Research Foundation (FHIA), the Brazilian Enterprise for Agricultural Research, and two institutions in Africa and one in the Caribbean.
Why are resources lacking?
Because of a misunderstanding. The banana has had a bad image, as a product in the hands of a few multinationals that only want to export the fruit. But it is also a very important crop for hundreds of thousands of small and medium farmers. Thanks to the campaigns of INIBAP, donors are beginning to understand that financing research on the banana is a way to promote development.
To learn more about the banana question, connect yourself to: http://archive.newscientist.com and www.inibap.org
* India is the world's leading banana producer, with 16 million tons a year.
* Approximately 100 million tons of banana and plantain are produced annually in around 120 tropical and subtropical countries.
* There are more than 500 banana varieties in the world, but the Cavendish is the most exported.
* The highest banana consumption rate is in East Africa. Uganda leads Africa in production and the world in per capita consumption, but exports of just 1,623 tons a year.
* 99.5 percent of banana consumers worldwide eat banana varieties that farmers have not changed in centuries.
* The banana is among the most easily digested fruits, and is a useful, nutritional food for children, the ill and athletes because it is a good source of potassium, calcium, phosphorous, and vitamins A, B6 and C.
* Reproduction for nearly all banana varieties is complex because the trees do not have seeds and are sterile, and take nearly 18 months to bear fruit.
* Cuba is the first country to plant conventionally improved banana varieties on a grand scale, with more than 11,000 hectares cultivated.
* Julio Godoy is an IPS correspondent.