Hybrids Could Provide Way Out of Banana Crisis
By Thelma Mejía*
varieties obtained by Honduran scientists could be the answer to
the biological threat looming over this fruit's Cavendish family,
the most exported banana type in the world.
TEGUCIGALPA - The Honduran Foundation for Agricultural
Research (FHIA) has developed alternatives to the potential demise
of the Cavendish banana, the most widely exported variety and one
that is threatened by a lethal plague, an FHIA spokesman told Tierramérica.
The test varieties FHIA 17 and FHIA 23 possess
traits and a taste similar to the Cavendish and could replace it,
Roberto Tejeda, the institution's communications manager told Tierramérica.
Since it was founded in 1984, the FHIA has
achieved six banana hybrids that are resistant to black sigatoka
and to some forms of Panama disease, two types of fungus infestations
that are devastating banana plantations in several regions around
These hybrids also demonstrate some resistance
to other pests, such as parasite worms that attacks the roots of
the banana tree.
The FHIA 17 and FHIA 23 trial hybrids are the
product of conventional genetic crosses, using natural pollination
methods, in a process that has allowed scientists and farmers to
confront the fungus threat without affecting the environment, says
The intensive use of pesticides to fight these
fungi is environmentally harmful and means high production costs
for small and medium size farming operations.
The FHIA has not turned to genetic engineering
as an option either. The results achieved through conventional crossbreeding
techniques are encouraging for now, but there is still much to be
done, Tejeda said.
The FHIA is one of just five institutions worldwide
that are dedicated to improving the security of the banana, the
fourth leading food crop in the world, after rice, maize and wheat.
In contrast, there are around a thousand institutions
around the globe that are specialized in rice research.
The FHIA is part of the International Network
for the Improvement of the Banana and Plantain (INIBAP), based in
France, with the mandate to promote scientific investigation of
INIBAP has called attention to the plant health
problems confronting banana growers in Asia, Australia and Africa.
In those regions, the fusarium fungus, which triggers what is known
as race 4 of Panama disease, has attacked the banana varieties of
the Cavendish group, the most consumed bananas in the western world.
To date, there does not exist a pesticide to
fight this soil-inhabiting organism, nor are there any Cavendish
varieties that are resistant to fusarium wilt.
Earlier this year, INIBAP issued a warning
that the extinction of the Cavendish is on the horizon and expressed
concern that fusarium would soon spread to the commercial banana
plantations in Latin America and the Caribbean.
The FHIA has two varieties that are resistant to black sigatoka
but not the race 4 of Panama disease, and are being grown at experiment
stations in countries like Cuba, Colombia and Ecuador.
The hybrids that the FHIA works with are geared
towards the consumption of cooked banana, which is in high demand
in Latin America, the Caribbean and Africa, while in Europe the
population eats the fruit fresh, Tejeda explained.
Confronting the fusarium challenge requires
financing research to prevent the fungus from appearing in those
Latin American varieties, said the scientist.
The FHIA is urging "the transnational
banana companies to work with other related institutions to obtain
resources that would facilitate research and consolidate it to the
benefit of consumers, trade and scientific development," Tejeda
The Honduran institution spends 400,000 dollars
a year on banana and plantain research, with most of the resources
coming from INIBAP.
Obtaining funding is a constant struggle faced
by the agricultural research institutions of the developing South,
"As the years pass, in Latin America the
total resources for scientific research has been diminishing, and
this is something we are experiencing firsthand," he said.
* Thelma Mejía
is a Tierramérica contributor.
From our files: