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August 03, 2010
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Bananas could vanish, group warns
and World Science staff
Bananas could disappear, U.N. officials are warning. Humans are wiping out more and more varieties of the fruit, they reported, and those remaining are vulnerable to epidemic diseases.
Officials of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization said the central problem is shrinking numbers of wild bananas in India, the world’s premier producer, as a result of forest destruction.
Among the victims are the ancestors of the Cavendish variety, the large, pulpy dessert banana that currently accounts for virtually all of world trade, amounting to nearly 20 million tons yearly.
Bananas are the world’s most exported fruit. Cooking bananas and plantains—eaten fried, boiled, baked or chipped—are the staple food of 400 million people in poorer countries.
Commercial banana varieties are highly vulnerable to pests and disease, said the organization’s NeBambi Lutaladio, an agricultural officer, because they’re near-clones of each other. Thus a disease that strikes one could sweep them all.
It has happened before. In the 1950s, Panama disease wiped out the then-dominant commercial banana, Gros Michel. Cavendish, which resisted the disease, was introduced then. But Cavendish could meet a similar fate.
One solution might be to bolster the plants’ resistance using genes from wild varieties. But with those strains disappearing, that option is fading away, Lutaladio added.
India’s lost bananas include a variety that conferred genetic resistance to the dreaded black Sigatoka fungus disease that has devastated plantations in the Amazon and elsewhere, U.N. officials said. Only one specimen of the resistant variety, named Musa Acuminata spp Burmannicoides, remains at the Indian Botanic Gardens in Calcutta.
The organization is urging conservation efforts and systematic exploration of the wild bananas’ remaining, remote forest habitats.
Alexander the Great put bananas on the map in 327 BC when, while invading India, he reported eating and enjoying them. The name banana comes from the Arab banan, or finger. Arab traders introduced the plant to Africa; the Portuguese took them to the Caribbean and Latin America.
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