Far from the steamy bananalands of the Caribbean, an entirely different effort to create the banana of the future nearly fills a basketball-court-size greenhouse 20 minutes east of Brussels, Belgium. Rony Swennen is director of the Laboratory of Tropical Crop Improvement at the Catholic University of Leuven. He oversees the world's largest collection of bananas and plantains. More than 1,200 varieties are kept in rows of test tubes, tiny plantlets encased in glass-each a potential donor of genetic material to be used in engineering new banana varieties. For the past decade, Swennen and his colleagues have been decoding and manipulating banana genes in the hopes of building resistance to the main afflictions that strike the fruit's commercial varieties: Black Sigatoka; nematodes, a kind of minuscule worm; and the various strains of Panama disease.
Banana-bereft suburban breakfast tables notwithstanding, Swennen says that the real danger the spread of these path- ogens poses is in the developing world, especially East Africa. In the densely populated countries around Lake Victoria-Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Burundi and Rwanda-bananas are primary nutrition, accounting for near-total carbohydrate consumption in some diets (in Uganda, the word for food, "matooke," translates from Swahili as "banana"). The bananas eaten in East Africa are not the dessert-style fruit consumed in the West; they are far more versatile (there's even a beer brewed from bananas sold in Kampala). But like the Cavendish, African bananas are threatened. The Ugandan National Banana Research Program says that plants that once yielded fruit over a 50-year life span are now so much less resistant to disease that they become unproductive and require replacement after as few as five years. Bananas are also essential to the region's other crops: They provide cover for tropical forests, allowing staples such as beans and sweet potatoes to grow in their shade. Without bananas, Swennen says, 20 million people would face "massive destabilization."
The reason bananas are so susceptible to disease has to do with their ancient origins. Almost no plant has been cultivated longer by humans. The earliest banana production began in Southeast Asia, but of the hundreds of varieties found in that region, only about 10 or 15, according to Swennen, were brought to Africa. (Bananas are a perfect crop for subsistence farming, since once a family has a healthy plant, no more seeds need to be planted-or bought; instead farmers simply replant shoots, called "suckers," from existing trees.) Bananas mutate easily, and of the few Asian banana varieties that originally made it to Africa, more than 200 new varieties have emerged. But these varieties remain genetically similar, so they're prone to parallel afflictions. The situation in Latin America is even worse. "Only a few moved from Africa to there," Swennen says, "so you've got even lower variability."
The geneticist has already created one sweet banana that, using genetic material from radishes, has built-in resistance to Black Sigatoka. The lab is also developing high-yield plantains for Africa and a banana manipulated to be high in beta-carotene. Swennen emphasizes that biotech is literally the only way to save the Cavendish, which, because it is 100 percent seedless, can't be improved on by traditional hybridization methods. And FHIA's approach of growing a new variety from scratch, he argues, is too slow.
Traditional banana scientists, like the ones in Honduras, know that the methods they use are slower by decades than the lab-induced DNA manipulation that Swennen and his fellow researchers are working on. But they also know that resistance to genetically engineered foods runs deep among the world's consuming public. A recent survey by Fyffes (the banana importer that is to Britain what Chiquita is to the U.S.) found that 82 percent of U.K. shoppers said they would never buy a genetically altered banana, even if proven to be safe, even if doing so allowed the elimination of pesticides and other potentially harmful agricultural chemicals-a major advantage, supporters say, of biotech crops. Public aversion to DNA-altered foods exists throughout Europe, where most such fruits and vegetables are banned. Although Chiquita wouldn't comment for this story, company executives have repeatedly rejected biotech techniques for use in consumer products.
"I can't understand this romantic idea that nature is perfect, and that what we do is create Frankensteins," Swennen says. People "are frightened-and they're wrong." He believes that the threats bananas face mean that they are likely to be the bioengineered food that finally forces global shoppers to consider-and accept-science's inevitable intervention in the agricultural process. "There's almost no choice," he says. "We need resistant bananas."single page
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