16 January 2003
Defenceless banana 'will be extinct in 10 years'
By Robert Uhlig, Farming Correspondent
Buy your bananas now. Scientists warn today that the world's favourite fruit could be extinct within 10 years because it is unable to fight off a rampaging plague of pests and disease.
Emile Frison, head of a worldwide network of banana researchers, warned that the world's favourite fruit was at crisis point, with yields in decline in much of Africa, Asia and central America.
He and other scientists warned that the regions most dependent on the banana, relying on the fruit for up to half their daily calories, are facing the tropical equivalent of the Irish potato famine.
The doomed banana's Achilles heel is that it is a genetically decrepit sterile mutant. One of the oldest crops, the first edible variety was propagated around 10,000 years ago from a rare mutant of the wild banana, which, with a mass of hard seeds, is virtually inedible.
But because all edible bananas are sterile - effectively clones of that first plant - they are unable to evolve to fight off new diseases.
Black sigatoka, a fungal disease that cuts yields by up to three quarters and reduces the productive lives of banana plants from 30 to only two or three years, has become a global epidemic.
The fungus reduced yields by 40 per cent in a year in Uganda, the world's second largest producer, and is spreading through the Brazilian Amazon and the Far East.
Mr Frison, director of the International Network for the Improvement of Banana and Plantain, said black sigatoka was no longer being kept in check. "As soon as you bring in a new fungicide, it develops resistance," he said.
Luadir Gasparotto, Brazil's leading banana pathologist, said production in Brazil, the world's fourth largest producer, was likely to fall by 70 per cent because of sigatoka. "Most of the banana fields in Amazonia have already been destroyed," he said.
To make matters worse, Panama disease, a fungus that wiped out a popular variety in the 1950s, has also returned.
Genetic engineering may be the only answer, New Scientist reports today.
Last year, scientists led by Mr Frison announced plans to sequence the genetic blueprint of the banana within five years, focusing on inedible wild bananas, many of which are resistant to black sigatoka.
But large producers have refused to back the research because of costs and fears that consumers will not accept a GM banana.
Half a billion people in Africa and Asia depend on the banana for up to half their daily calories. The starchy varieties rather than the sweet fruit is used in everything from cooking to banana gin.
Britain imports more than seven billion bananas a year, making it the nation's favourite fruit. More than 140 million are eaten every week.