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Food & Hunger

Scientists Are Racing Against Time to Stop Bananas From Being 'Wiped Out'

Bananas are one of those things that we take for granted, but the fruit is under threat.

A devastating disease is sweeping through the world’s banana plantations. It’s known as Panama disease, or “fusarium wilt”, and a strain of the disease known as Tropical Race 4 is attacking plantations in Australia, southeast Asia, parts of Africa, and the Middle East.

The disease causes the leaves of the banana plant to dry out, which means the plant can’t produce fruit. The worry now is that it is getting dangerously close to Latin America, which is the world’s largest exporter of bananas. 

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“It’s just a matter of time before the fusarium wilt disease reaches Central and South America, which is why there is an urgent need to develop a resistant banana,” Eyal Maori, chief scientific officer and co-founder of UK-based Tropic Biosciences, which develops varieties of tropical crops, told the Guardian.

The soil-borne, highly-contagious disease is putting the availability of bananas at risk and, according to experts, it could wipe them out altogether. 

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In Britain, around 5 billion bananas are eaten every year — around 25% of all fruit consumed. In the US, the average person eats about 12 kilograms (26 pounds) of bananas annually, which works out to about 100 bananas. 

And for many developing countries, it’s a vital food resource on which millions depend. In fact, bananas are the developing world’s fourth most important food crop after rice, wheat, and maize, according to a report published by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation. Bananas are grown in more than 100 countries worldwide, and around 87% of all bananas are produced by small-scale farmers to be eaten at home or sold in local markets. 

The global banana export industry has been valued at around $13 billion a year, and it’s closer to $30 billion if you take into account consumption as well as exports. 

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The problem is that just a single type of banana — the Cavendish — accounts for 99.9% of all bananas traded globally. 

Baby bananas are essentially a clone of the parent plant, meaning that they’re basically genetically identical. With that monoculture (as opposed to genetic diversity) the whole population becomes vulnerable to disease. With no genetic diversity, there’s little immunity. 

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“That creates a lot of exposure for the industry because a disease that kills one banana can wipe out the entire industry,” Tropic Biosciences CEO Gilad Gershon told Fast Company. “A beetle that attacks one banana tree can attack all of them.” 

And if you were thinking that these are hollow warnings, think again. Because this has happened before. 

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Up until the 1950s, the world’s most popular type of banana was the Gros Michel, which accounted for the vast majority of the bananas consumed. 

Yet, in the 1950s, the Gros Michel was wiped out — by the same disease, fusarium wilt. It swept through entire plantations, and caused a global collapse in the banana trade. 

The only difference between then and now, according to reports? There’s no variety to take the place of the Cavendish. 

And so, scientists around the world are racing to create a more robust variety of banana. 

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Tropic Biosciences, for example, based in Norfolk, is using gene-editing techniques create a more resilient Cavendish. The company has already successfully gene-edited a banana cell which can be grown into a full plant, according to the Guardian.

Now, having recently received $10 million from investors, the startup will be able to launch field trials in Central America, the Philippines, and Turkey over the next year. 

“It’s not just about disease resistance, but also about easing the environmental burden,” continued Maori. “The new variety will mean the need for less fungicides and higher yields for farmers. The trials should show the plants can perform well in real world conditions and demonstrate value to the growers.”

But they’re not the only ones. Reseachers at the University of Exeter, funded by the Global Food Security Programme, are also investigating banana resilience and threats to the global supply chain. And, in 2017, researchers at Queensland University of Technology, in Australia, reportedly designed a genetically modified Cavendish banana that would have resistance to Panama disease. 

The researchers have begun an expanded five-year field trial on a Northern Territory plantation.

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The difference between gene editing and gene modification is that gene editing works with the existing DNA and gene modification adds in the DNA of different organisms. And science like this, according to Gershon, could be the last hope for bananas as we know them. 

“The only way you can change the banana now is through genetics,” he said. “If we don’t [take] this type of role and save the banana, I’m not sure there’s any other way to do it.” 

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