No Bananas?

by Henry Norr on April 10, 2004

In the Business section of the April 5 Chronicle, biotech columnist David Ewing Duncan discussed efforts to protect the banana from fungi that threaten its future. He’s certainly right that the world needs something better than the banana industry’s current approach – drenching the plants with chemical fungicides just about every week, causing high rates of leukemia and sterility among workers in the banana groves.

But Duncan devotes only two of his column’s 41 paragraphs to efforts to develop fungus-resistant banana varieties by traditional cross-breeding techniques, and he ends up more or less dismissing this possibility (“the resulting fruit tastes bitter”). Most of the rest of the article is an extended plea for a genetically engineered fix.

I’m hardly an expert on bananas, but I do listen to “Living on Earth,” NPR’s weekly environment-news show, and LoE, through contributor Bob Carty, has been covering the yellow fruit’s problems and prospects since at least 1992. Coincidentally (I assume), LoE ran a long report from Carty just 10 days before Duncan’s column appeared, and the contrast is striking: Carty makes only brief mention of the genetic engineering research Duncan focuses on, and instead concentrates on the work of the Honduran Foundation for Agricultural Research, which is trying to address the issue through traditional breeding techniques.

According to its director-general, Adolfo Martinez, the foundation has already developed several highly resistant varieties, including one that’s already being grown in Cuba and some 50 other countries. Carty’s conclusion: “Adolfo believes his breeding program will save the banana, and also help the small farmers of the world who would never be able to afford a patented, genetically modified banana anyway.”

So Duncan may be right, as the headline on his column put it, that “Without a genetic fix, the banana may be history,” but there’s no reason to assumethat only biotech can deliver that fix.

You can listen to Carty’s report, download an MP3 version, or read a transcript at http://www.loe.org/ETS/organizations.php3?action=printContentItem&orgid=33&typeID=18&itemID=197. In addition to the discussion of the fungus problem, it has lots of fascinating tidbits about the history of the banana, the aggressive marketing campaigns that made it a staple of our diet, and the consequences for the people and environment of Central America – plus some fun clips from old ads and banana-themed popular music.

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