If there’s one thing we take for granted, it’s bananas. They’re always cheap and available on the grocery store shelves. But it turns out they may vanish in a decade if we don’t develop new blight-resistant varieties. Could we be facing the end of our yellow friend?
Today’s Cavendish banana has an ancestor called the Gros Michel that was wiped out by a soil fungus in the 1950s. Emile Frison, of the International Network for the Improvement of Banana and Plantain (INIBAP), says it will take genetic engineering to save the current variety, because it lacks the genetic diversity needed to survive.
A fungus called Black Sigatoka is a global epidemic that?s invading banana plantations in Central America, Africa and Asia, and fungicides are increasingly ineffective. “As soon as you bring in a new fungicide, they develop resistance,” Frison says. “One thing we can be sure of is that the Sigatoka won’t lose in this battle.” This can be compared to the Irish potato famine of the 1840s, which was partly caused by the fact that only one variety of potato was planted. When it became vulnerable to disease, the entire crop was wiped out, causing starvation (and a lot of Irish migration to the U.S.). To solve the problem, Frison will sequence the genetic blueprint of the banana, using inedible wild bananas, which are full of hard seeds, since many of these are resistant to black Sigatoka. He will then try to manipulate this genetic material to create a new, edible version. The research will use African bananas, since consumption there is 50 times greater than in the West. He says, “Work on the banana genome will be concentrated on finding ways to improve the varieties on which Africans depend for their survival, rather than the one you and I buy off supermarket shelves.”
Genetic engineering usually causes a reduction in bio-diversity, since the GM food is more robust and wipes out the natural varieties. This, rather than any problem with eating GM foods, is the real danger of genetic engineering, because if we?re left with a single species, a new disease could wipe out the food forever. This is happening with corn in Mexico right now, and bananas, which have been hybridized into a single version that tastes good, are facing the same future. We can save the banana with genetic engineering, but it will continue to face future extinction and we will have to keep tinkering with it in order to stay ahead of nature.
If we can?t eat bananas, there are other ways to survive.
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