Yes, We Have No Bananas
AMIDST A GLOBAL FOOD CRISIS, one
of the world’s most popular fruits is in grave
danger. The fast-moving deadly fungus Tropical Race 4 (TR4) is threatening to render the
banana nearly extinct in the next five to 20
years. But several forward-thinking projects
are underway to save it.
An estimated 70 million tons of bananas are
produced globally each year, making the risk
particularly pressing. And the crisis only exacerbates an already dire global food shortage:
The World Bank’s food price index increased
by 15 percent between October 2010 and
Since its emergence in the early 1990s, TR4
has devastated the multibillion-dollar banana
growing industry—and the fungus shows no
sign of slowing. In Indonesia alone, the dis-
ease has destroyed more than 12,000 acres
in the fact that nearly everyone is consuming
the same monoculture of banana: the Cav-
endish. That variety makes up 99 percent of
bananas on the market today, after its prede-
cessor, the Gros Michel, was itself wiped out
by a similar fungus in the 1960s.
A banana bunch in a plastic bag for protection, growing on a plantation in St. Lucia
Juan Fernando Aguilar Moran, PhD, is out to
develop a whole new kind of banana—one that
can put up a good fight.
As banana and plantain breeding program
leader at the Fundación Hondureña de Inves-tigación Agrícola in San Pedro Sula, Honduras,
he’s working on a project to breed disease-resistant hybrid bananas.
In January, U.S. food giant Chiquita Brands
International Inc. signed a deal to work with
the organization on the project, and Dole
Food Co. Inc., another U.S. food titan, is
negotiating a similar agreement.
The team has made considerable progress
on the project but has yet to find the coveted
replacement, Dr. Moran says. It can take three
years to develop a disease-resistant hybrid, and
the team must pollinate the plants by hand.
Factors like low wind resistance, poor pulp
quality and small batch quantities often make
the new plants worthless. He calls the project a
“constant process of improvement.”
“Like the plants, the fungi also improve
due to the pressure of the environment,” Dr.
Moran says. “You never can end the selec-
tion process. The fungi react to the environ-
ment and develop new varieties. We’re always
improving the parents of the hybrids we have
With so many changes, project leaders
must “keep the client or project owner well-
informed,” he says.
It starts by building a strong relationship
with project partners and stakeholders, including investors and the farmers themselves,
says James Dale, PhD, director of the Centre
for Tropical Crops and Biocommodities at
Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane, Australia.
“You have to have partners that are both