Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Oh boy, the world is going bananas!

Decades ago, my rather cantankerous great-uncle decided that he had a great plan to earn quite some money from the fertile lands that had been passed down the generations--he would plant bananas in place of rice.

The family lore is that it looked like like he would really strike it rich.  The plantation was coming along great.  But, disaster struck in the form of sustained high winds and rains.  The field of dreams was wiped out only days before harvest time.  Those were the bad old times before crop insurance, and the man who bet his farm on bananas lost it all.

Trouble lies ahead for banana farmers.  It is of a different kind.  Literally a different kind--a fungus.
Crop pathologists call Fusarium oxysporum, a tiny, asexual soil fungus, the “silent assassin.” It enters plants through their roots and travels through their vascular tissue; by the time it is ready to sporulate, the plant is doomed. The fungus has adapted to human agriculture by differentiating: F. oxysporum f. sp. lycopersici causes tomato wilt; F. oxysporum f. sp. asparagi causes asparagus wilt; and F. oxysporum f. sp. cubense is slowly but surely wiping out the world’s banana supply.
No, "wiping out the world's banana supply" is not an exaggeration.
Specifically, the researchers warn that the strain, which first began wreaking havoc in Southeast Asia some 50 years ago and has more recently spread to other parts of Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Australia, will eventually make its way to Latin America, where the vast majority of the world's banana exports are still grown. At this point, they say, it's not a question of whether Tropical Race 4 will infiltrate the mothership of global banana production; it's a matter of when.
Apparently this pathogen is an awful killing machine:
Tropical Race 4 is capable of killing at least 80%—though possibly as much as 85%—of the 145 million tonnes (160 million tons) of bananas and plantains produced each year
As with everything else, with this TR4 too the impacts on the poor will be worse:
The developed world prizes bananas as a food of convenience—it’s cheap, portable and reasonably healthy. In poor countries, however, bananas are often a basic source of nourishment for at least 400 million people. The average person in Uganda, Gabon, Ghana and Rwanda relies on bananas and plantains for more than 300 calories each day—around 16% of the UN’s nourishment threshold (and bear in mind that around 20% of the 74 million people living in those four countries are undernourished). Roughly 70% of all bananas consumed locally are vulnerable to Tropical Race 4.
The damn thing has even spread down under, by which I mean Australia:
The discovery of TR4 on the Cassowary Coast – that bountiful stretch of lush green valleys and rainforested ranges south of Cairns – cast a pall over a place that produces eight in every 10 bananas eaten in Australia.
 So, what can possibly be the way to save the Cavendish banana?  Scientists are working on two ideas:
(1) inserting a TR4-resistant gene from a different wild banana species from Malaysia and Indonesia, musa acuminata malaccensis, into the Cavendish to create a fungus-resistant version of the popular variety and (2) turning off a gene in the Cavendish that follows directions from the fungus to kill its own cells
Ahem, GMO banana?  That'll go well, won't it? ;)
Dale's introduction of a different GM experiment in 2014, a vitamin-A-fortified banana meant to help deliver nutrients to impoverished Africans, was met with harsh criticism from the likes of Indian environmental activist Vandana Shiva, Friends of the Earth Africa, and Food and Water Watch. "There is no consensus that GM crops are safe for human consumption," they wrote in a letter to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Or, we could switch to the gazillion other varieties of bananas, instead of this one:
We could stop relying on Cavendish bananas. If you've ever tasted one of the dozens of small, sweet bananas that grow in regions like Central America and Southeast Asia, you probably aren't terribly impressed with the United States' doughy supermarket varieties. Belgium's Bioversity International estimates that there are at least 500, but possibly twice as many, banana cultivars in the world, and about 75 wild species.
Yes, like one of my favorites--the "malai vazha pazham", which translates to "hill bananas" because that variety is grown in the hilly terrains near Pazhani and Kodaikanal in the old country.  Ah, for some tasty old country bananas!


Ramesh said...

I'll send you some from your native village , TR4 free.

I was placidly reading your post, nodding until I see you mentioning Vandana Shiva. I immediately foamed at the mouth, ranted for a while, saw red, hyperventilated and am still not back to my normal self. Why do you inflict such torture on an old friend ?

Mike Hoth said...

your students would be able to explain to you why banana flavored candy tastes nothing like "real" bananas; they taste like the Gros Michel, which was nearly wiped out by a similar blight in the 1950s. Being the brilliant species we are, we found a new cultivar that is immune to that particular fungus and planted the Cavendish everywhere. Because a widespread disease that kills all the bananas could neeeeever happen again!

I'm just looking forward to being able to tell younger people that in my day, we had nine planets (although we may get back to nine!) and bananas tasted completely different.

Sriram Khé said...

Glad to know you read the post until the end, Ramesh ... though, at this rate, the blog-posts might cause "your end" itself ;)
Crazy ideologues like Shiva seem to have quite a few adoring, worshiping fans though :(

I don't remember from your stories whether you have been to tropical places where you get many different kinds of bananas, Mike. If you have not, well, here's wishes that you will get to taste the red bananas, the green bananas, the tiny bananas, the .... you will then have quite a few stories in your old age ;)

Anne in Salem said...

"There is no consensus that GM crops are safe for human consumption." Seriously? Hasn't GM rice saved millions of lives in Asia in the last several decades? This isn't exactly new stuff.

Rubber trees face the same potential. National Geographic quotes an expert botanist that if just one spore of the blight that destroyed South America's rubber trees hits SE Asia, the auto industry would come to a screeching halt. (Their bad pun, not mine.)

Moderation in all things.

Sriram Khé said...

GM rice has not been commercialized yet because of intense opposition from the likes of Vandana Shiva. I am sure Ramesh is very happy with Shiva's accomplishments ;)

It is a crazy world in which we live; that much is for sure. But, it is also that craziness that makes life so fascinating, I suppose.

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