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Hybrids Could Provide Way Out of Banana Crisis

By Thelma Mejía*

Banana 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 the world.

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 Tejeda.

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 this fruit.

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 said.

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, noted Tejeda.

"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:

Copyright 2003 Tierramérica. All Rights Reserved

Photo Credit: Claudio Contreras.

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