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.