The Extraordinary Vanishing Bananas
9 May 2006
Musa velutina is native to north-east India but is
under threat from habitat destruction
FAO are calling for a systematic exploration of the wild bananas’ remaining forest habitats in India’s remotest regions of Southeast Asia to catalogue surviving species as well as conservation efforts to offset loss of the species’ natural habitat and research on expanding the use of wild bananas in breeding programmes.
Wild banana species are disappearing in India, the world's biggest producer of the fruit, due to shrinking forests and rapid urbanization, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization has said.
Bananas are the world's most exported fruit, and the fourth most important food commodity after rice, wheat and maize. Half a billion people in Africa and Asia depend on them as a staple food.
"But over-exploitation and the loss of forests as a result of encroachment and logging, slash-and-burn cultivation and urbanization are causing a rapid loss of wild banana species that have existed in India for thousands of years," it said.
Among them are the ancestors of the Cavendish variety, the large, pulpy dessert banana which currently accounts for virtually all of world trade, amounting to nearly 20 million tonnes a year.
“The Indian subcontinent has made an enormous contribution to the global genetic base of bananas,” FAO Agricultural Officer NeBambi Lutaladio said.
“But due to ecosystem destruction, it is probable that many valuable gene sources have now been lost. That could cause serious problems because bananas, particularly commercial varieties, have a narrow genetic pool and are highly vulnerable to pests and diseases.”
The first edible bananas date back 10,000 years in South-East Asia but it was Alexander’s invasion of India in 327 B.C. when he reported eating and enjoying bananas, that led to the fruit’s widespread migration.
From India it travelled to the Middle East, where it acquired its current name from the Arabic "banan", or finger, and from there Arab traders took it to Africa, where the Portuguese transported it to the Caribbean and Latin America.
India is the world’s biggest banana grower, with an annual production of 18.52 million tonnes, or over 20 percent of total world output of 80.03 million tonnes (FAO figures) in 2005 of the world’s most exported fruit and fourth most important food commodity after rice, wheat and maize in terms of production value.
Seen It All Before
In the 1950s, the then dominant commercial banana, Gros Michel, was destroyed by Panama disease. Cavendish, which resisted the disease, was introduced then. But Mr. Lutaladio pointed out that small-scale farmers around the world grow a wide range of bananas that are not threatened by diseases currently threatening commercial bananas.
India’s lost bananas include a variety which conferred genetic resistance to the dreaded black Sigatoka fungus disease that devastated plantations in the Amazon and elsewhere. Only one clone of the species, whose scientific name is Musa acuminata spp burmannicoides, remains at the Indian Botanic Gardens in Calcutta.
What provoked the Irish famine in the 19th century was a single variety planted across huge areas of land and ravaged by disease in one fell swoop. The banana crisis shows that the lessons of 'mono-cultures' have not been learned: a fungal disease called black sigatoka has been wreaking more and more havoc in the wall-to-wall plantations of identical plants; only unsustainable volumes of chemicals have been keeping it at bay.
"One thing we can be sure of is that the Sigatoka won't lose in this battle" - said plant pathologist Dr Emile Frison, who heads the French-based International Network for the Improvement of Banana and Plantain (INIBAP), in 2003 following an outbreak of the disease.
India, as the largest producer of the fruit, had contributed significantly to the "global genetic base of bananas," said NeBambi Lutaladio, FAO's agriculture officer.
"But due to ecosystem destruction, it is probable that many valuable gene sources have now been lost," Lutaladio said. "That could cause serious problems because bananas, particularly commercial varieties, have a narrow genetic pool and are highly vulnerable to pests and diseases," he said.
The FAO is calling for a systematic exploration of the wild bananas' remaining forest habitat, which lies in some of India's most remote regions and in the jungles of Southeast Asia, to catalog the number and types of surviving wild species.
The food agency, which tries to preserve agricultural biodiversity, has sought better land management in India and the introduction of wild bananas in developing new species of the fruit for cultivation.
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