GM The Only Hope For Bananas?

It seems that tropical cyclones are the least of worries for banana lovers everywhere (and anyone who is worried about Australia’s banana-led inflation woes).

The current dominant banana variety – Cavendish, is the successor to the original dessert banana, the Gros Michel banana, a strain that was all but wiped out by fungal diseases in the 1950s.

Gros Michel bananas (which were reportedly much better tasting than the modern Cavendish banana) are not extinct, but their susceptibility to disease means that it is impossible to grow them in quantities suitable for commercial production.

The Cavendish banana is the most commonly grown variety primarily because of its suitability to transportation and storage, and its relatively long shelf-life compared to other banana varieties.

Unfortunately, new and more virulent strains of the same fungal diseases that wiped out the Gros Michel are now starting to affect the harvest of Cavendish bananas too. So much so that scientists predict that the Cavendish is unlikely to be a viable variety within 10-20 years.

The problem with bananas is a unique one. Commercial bananas are reproduced by cuttings rather than seeding, which means that every banana plant is a clone – containing the exact same genetic material as its parent plant. Therefore, any disease which can wipe out one banana plantation can wipe them all out just as easily.

And the disappearance of bananas is not just an inconvenience. While mostly used as a dessert or finger food in developed countries, green bananas (or plantains) are the staple starch of many developing countries, especially in Africa. A banana blight would be an economic and humanitarian disaster there, along the same lines as the Irish potato famine, only on a much larger scale.

Most scientists agree that the only hope for the banana is Genetic Modification – a prospect that is less than attractive for many, especially the tools in the EU who react to the letters “GM” similarly to how your average Australian lefty reacts to the words “John Howard”.

However, the banana is unique because the banana fruit itself is sterile. It is not capable of seeding itself and can only be reproduced by cuttings, thereby allaying one of the major fears of anti-GM activists – rogue GM plants running wild. Scientists started sequencing the banana genome in 2001 and are already on their way to creating fungus-resistant bananas.

Despite this, the usual suspects say that they would never eat GM bananas. 82% of british consumers surveyed said they would never consider eating GM bananas even if they were proved safe.

Unfortunately for those luddites, it seems as though they will probably have no choice. In the near future there will be no such thing as a non-GM banana. The irony is that while GM is probably the only hope for bananas, bananas are equally the great white hope for other GM foods in traditionally opposed markets like Europe. Once consumers are forced to eat GM bananas (or no bananas at all), they will quite quickly come to the realisation that eating GM foods won’t cause you to grow a 3rd eye and the irrational opposition to GM will start to wane.

And so really, the unfortunate plight of bananas may eventually be a boon to the rest of the world, if it ends up being the catalyst for the eventual worldwide acceptance of GM foods. We can only hope.

Explore posts in the same categories: Politics, Technology

9 Comments on “GM The Only Hope For Bananas?”

  1. Steve Says:

    Interesting, I didn’t know they could only be grown from cuttings.


  2. they will quite quickly come to the realisation that eating GM foods won’t cause you to grow a 3rd eye and the irrational opposition to GM will start to wane.

    the vast majority of people opposed to GM aren’t going on about third eyes, and their opposition is not irrational.

    there is a certain amount of cross-fertilisation that occurs with most crops. when there is a GM cross over, it’s pretty much irreversible. people with non-GM crops don’t want the contamination and they have every right to protect their seed stocks. this weighs heavily on farmers who have carefully kept their own seed stock from year to year, or supplement it. what happens to their stock when it accidently gets cross-fertilised with a GM product in the next field? their own stock and livelihood is threatened.

    GM crops are mostly being developed and controlled by Monsanto, and a couple of other big seed companies. they copyright and protect their stock. every company has this right, sure. but much of the stock is good for only one generation. they are heavily hybridised and modified, so a second generation may bear no resemblance to the first (which is the case with most hybrids). you have to buy new seed for every crop in order to have a reliable product. have to! so the farmer is again beholden to the seed company, who controls price, quantity, and variety.

    and if a farmers own stock becomes useless or altered, who do they have to buy their stock from? eventually, from a company who decides to only stock GM seed. and the consumer choice becomes more and more limited as a result. the average consumer wants more variety, not less.

    all this doesn’t help people in the third world who can’t afford to buy seed stock. it will probably devestate their economy and agricultural diversity. it sounds similar to the Nestles hoo-haa a few decades ago when African mothers were encouraged to use formula instead of breastmilk for their babies. dirty tactitcs indeed.

    sites like Diggers.com.au and the USA company Seed Savers are involved in a very important thing, keeping heritage or heirloom seeds viable and available.

    in agriculture, genetic diversity is good, in fact, it’s crucial. it allows people to grow crops fitted to their agricultural conditions, instead of fitting the conditions to the crop available. in Australia, we’re only just beginning to appreciate this and try to work with it. I’m not only talking about, say, it’s better to grow carrots in your particular area than wheat, but which variety of carrot (or wheat, or whatever)? having seed stocks controlled by fewer and fewer players, and having to rely apon the varieties they choose to keep (especially because the seed is not viable for a second generation), becomes more of a monopoly for the seed companies, and more of a monoculture for agriculture. monoculture by and large is not good. just like biodiversity in an ecosystem, genetic diversity and heirloom species in agricultural production are essential.

    one more point to consider is that some people have food allergies which may be exacerbated by unwittingly eating a GM food. I don’t know enough about that, but it stands to reason that it might be possible. and again, if a non-GM crop is accidently cross-contaiminated, the ‘normal’ crop might be unwittingly responsible for an allergic reaction.

    you’re very right, though – the banana question is intriguing in the extreme. it’s a lot harder for a company to control rootstock and cuttings. GM seed production is by big, powerful companies who seek to control their product – which is every company’s right, until it impinges on the rights of others. how to control rootstock and cuttings? would they be interested and put money into it? maybe not, because the money spent may not give them the result (control of their product) they want. science may come up with the answer (I hope it does) but having the money to put it into practice in a non-profit way for poor communities to take advantage of it? will that happen?

    some of the solution should come down, again, to genetic diversity. even just a few decades ago there would have been many more available varieties for small scale local production. diversity protects the plant species and the consumer because if one variety has a bad crop for a year or two, the others fill the gap.

    anyway, I realise this is an extraordinarily long post, but thanks for the opportunity to post it. there are many people concerned with reasons other than third eyes and general silliness in relation to GM foods. give us a bit more credit!

  3. yobbo Says:

    “one more point to consider is that some people have food allergies which may be exacerbated by unwittingly eating a GM food. I don’t know enough about that, but it stands to reason that it might be possible.”

    Just like it might be possible to grow a third eye, perhaps?

    “there is a certain amount of cross-fertilisation that occurs with most crops. when there is a GM cross over, it’s pretty much irreversible. people with non-GM crops don’t want the contamination and they have every right to protect their seed stocks. this weighs heavily on farmers who have carefully kept their own seed stock from year to year, or supplement it.”

    Which is not the case for bananas. Yet, let me repeat – 82% of British consumers said they would NEVER consider eating GM bananas.

    Please explain the rational part to me.

    “GM crops are mostly being developed and controlled by Monsanto, and a couple of other big seed companies. they copyright and protect their stock.”

    I am well aware that the majority of the opposition to GM stems from a general opposition to capitalism.

    “and if a farmers own stock becomes useless or altered, who do they have to buy their stock from? eventually, from a company who decides to only stock GM seed. and the consumer choice becomes more and more limited as a result. the average consumer wants more variety, not less.”

    That’s a ridiculous story. Consumer choice has been and always will be affected by what varieties supermarkets decide to stock on their shelves. Where farmers buy their seed from is irrelevant in the extreme.

    “science may come up with the answer (I hope it does) but having the money to put it into practice in a non-profit way for poor communities to take advantage of it? will that happen?”

    Why does science have to be non-profit? Monsanto is an R+D company no different to Sony. Do you think Sony should give away free Playstations too?

    If there was no money to be made from research, nobody would do any research.

  4. Dave Says:

    “one more point to consider is that some people have food allergies which may be exacerbated by unwittingly eating a GM food. I don’t know enough about that, but it stands to reason that it might be possible….the ‘normal’ crop might be unwittingly responsible for an allergic reaction”

    Strange! My son is allergic to standard peanuts already. Monsanto, please produce a GM peanut that will not kill him.

    PS – most (if not all) of the wheat currently grown in Australia has been genetically modified to the shithouse over many years (for rust & smut resistance, better yields etc).

  5. Dude Says:

    Why don’t they GM the fungus instead ? Leave my banana alone.

  6. Dude Says:

    Furthermore:

    I have never seen a pro GM site before, most GM efforts introduce natural disease resistant features to species of plants that do not have those features. The problem scientists are overlooking is that those same compounds are just as bad as insecticides when ingested, add to that the oops factor of creating a lab monster and you have a looming disaster.

    Wood is a carcinogen if ingested repeatedly, take an apple and some trained monkey who thinks that apples go soft far too soon and you’ll have wooden apples before long.

    You want to solve the worlds food problems ? stop shitting a little of kids.

    Science is a joke anymore, take the same lab monkeys who used to work on real problems, give them a check and you get corporate scientists, brilliant.

  7. J707 Says:

    “Monsanto is an R+D company no different to Sony”

    Absolutely. Because Sony makes car stereos whose pollen blows from one car into another, turning that car’s stereo into a Sony stereo without the motorist’s knowledge, and then Sony comes in and sues that car’s owner for stealing their property. Sure, this happens all the time. Sony’s employees are also notorious for serving within the highest levels of the federal government’s regulatory commissions, rubberstamping potentially life-threatening products as fit for sale by citing bogus studies carried out by Sony.

    You might want to do some reading about what it is you are talking about and why so many people have issues with GM agriculture and Monsanto. On the other hand, if you’d like to think its just a bunch of commie hippie rabblerousers with an irrational, “general opposition to capitalism” then by all means, enjoy your two-dimensional ignorance.

  8. Sam Ward Says:

    On the other hand, if you’d like to think its just a bunch of commie hippie rabblerousers with an irrational, “general opposition to capitalism” then by all means, enjoy your two-dimensional ignorance.

    Can you think of a better description of your first paragraph?

  9. Ronia Says:

    GM The Only Hope For Bananas is very interesting question.


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