'Decrepit' banana faces extinction in 10 years

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The Independent Online

The banana could slide into extinction within 10 years because it is "genetically decrepit", scientists will warn today.

The banana could slide into extinction within 10 years because it is "genetically decrepit", scientists will warn today.

Because edible bananas are sterile mutants, new varieties cannot easily be produced by natural methods, leaving the fruit vulnerable to attack from pests and disease.

In the 1950s, the once dominant Gros Michel banana was wiped out by a disease caused by a soil fungus. Its successor, the Cavendish, is now threatened by another fungal disease, black Sigatoka. With nothing readily available to replace the Cavendish, the banana business has reached crisis point. According to a report in New Scientist magazine today, it could be gone in 10 years.

"In some ways, the banana today resembles the potato before blight brought famine to Ireland a century and a half ago," said the magazine.

Wild bananas, called Musa acuminata, contain a mass of hard seeds that make them virtually inedible. About 10,000 years ago in Asia, stone age man found a mutant edible variety, without seeds, and grew it using cuttings from the stems. That means that each banana is virtually genetically identical – meaning producing new varieties resistant to pests and diseases is very difficult.

"When some pest or disease comes along, severe epidemics can occur," Geoff Hawtin of the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute, based in Rome, told New Scientist.

Emile Frison, head of the International Network for the Improvement of Banana and Plantain (INIBAP) in Montpellier, France, said banana diseases were becoming increasingly difficult to control.

"As soon as you bring in a new fungicide, they develop resistance," he said. "One thing we can be sure of is the Sigatoka won't lose in this battle."

Since starting in Fiji in 1963, Black Sigatoka has spread and has destroyed most of the banana fields in Amazonia. That could cut production there by up to 70 per cent, in the world's second-largest growing area for bananas, after China.

Scientists and planters working on solutions are unable to agree whether to produce genetically modified bananas, or develop fungicide.

"Biotechnology to produce GM bananas resistant to fungi is expensive and there are serious questions about consumer acceptance," said David McLaughlin, senior director of environmental affairs for the banana company Chiquita.