Thursday, January 16, 2003

This article in the Telegraph excessively claims that the banana might be extinct in ten years. Apparently

The doomed banana's Achilles heel is that it is a genetically decrepit sterile mutant. One of the oldest crops, the first edible variety was propagated around 10,000 years ago from a rare mutant of the wild banana, which, with a mass of hard seeds, is virtually inedible.

But because all edible bananas are sterile - effectively clones of that first plant - they are unable to evolve to fight off new diseases.

Black sigatoka, a fungal disease that cuts yields by up to three quarters and reduces the productive lives of banana plants from 30 to only two or three years, has become a global epidemic.

So banana lovers are all doomed. Actually not. Firstly, bananas can evolve a little through mutation. If farmers are very careful to watch for their most resistant plants and then clone those, you can possibly get a resistant strain. Secondly, there is genetic engineering.

Genetic engineering may be the only answer, New Scientist reports today.

Last year, scientists led by Mr Frison announced plans to sequence the genetic blueprint of the banana within five years, focusing on inedible wild bananas, many of which are resistant to black sigatoka.

But large producers have refused to back the research because of costs and fears that consumers will not accept a GM banana.

Half a billion people in Africa and Asia depend on the banana for up to half their daily calories. The starchy varieties rather than the sweet fruit is used in everything from cooking to banana gin.

Actually, it will be relatively simple for researchers to figure out which genes in the wild bananas give resistance and transfer them to edible bananas. Then, bingo. Banana yields back to where we started, or higher.

Actually this could be interesting. Imagine the scene in 2012. Normal bananas are extinct. Those of us who have been following the ongoing EU banana war for the last couple of decades know that the Germans have an almost legendary apetite for bananas. It may be that they will be faced with a choice: accept genetically modified bananas, or move to some other fruit. My money is on the genetically modified bananas. As for the wildly exaggerated half a billion people in Asia or Africa, I suspect they also will choose the genetically modified bananas over the other terrible fates the Telegraph implies they are in for.

Update:This article from New Scientist (via slashdot ) might have been the Telegraph journalist's starting point. I don't know if straight bananas are boring, but I am sure they will go down a treat in the land of the rising sun and square watermelon.

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