PHOTO COURTESY OF WAGENINGEN UR
The stem of banana plant infected by the Tropical Race 4 fungus
patient and have sufficient funds to
support the project,” he says.
The project team is undertak-
ing several field trials in the quest
to genetically modify bananas by
inserting a gene that will essentially
starve the fungus to death. Dr. Dale
and his 12-person team received
$859,000 from the Australian
Research Council and an industry
partner to plant 4 acres ( 1. 6 hect-
ares) of genetically modified bananas
in diseased soil in the Northern Ter-
ritory. And Australian fruit farmer
Robert Borsato told The New Yorker
that he was investing $250,000.
“We’ll go [into] the millions,” he
said. “Someone has to do this work.
Otherwise, there’ll be grief.”
To keep everyone up to date and to brain-
storm ideas, Dr. Dale conducts biweekly meet-
ings. “There’s a lot of discussion, a lot of ideas
thrown out, and then we’ll make a decision
on which ones we’ll test and which ones we
won’t,” he says.
THE GREAT GENE BATTLE
One of the most effective ways to battle
banana blight is through genetic modification,
as exemplified through Dr. Dale’s project.
Yet project managers often run into stakeholder opposition to genetically modified
foods. Even those banana projects that have
experienced some success with genetic modification are under fire.
70 MILLION TONS
The amount of bananas produced
worldwide each year
The estimated cost to the
banana-growing industry over
the past decade due to diseases
When a fungus similar to TR4 wiped out
nearly half of Uganda’s bananas, the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture
initiated a project in January 2008 aimed at
protecting the crop. Last August, the project
team announced a major breakthrough after
it transferred genes from a green pepper to a
banana, enabling it to resist the fungus.
The stakes are high: Ugandans consume the
most bananas per capita in the world, with 65
percent of its population eating at least one
banana per day, according to the United States
Agency for International Development.
But later that month, Mariann Bassey of the
environmental advocacy group Environmental
Rights Action/Friends of the Earth, Nigeria
told Business Daily Africa that the project was
tantamount to using Ugandans as guinea pigs.
Dr. Dale says the extended timeline on his
project—his plants won’t be commercially
released for at least six more years—works to
“There are certainly changing attitudes
toward genetic modification,” he says.
“Bananas and other crops will become increas-
ingly difficult to maintain the yields they have
now—both from the pressure from diseases
and from changing climates.”
As TR4 continues to wreak havoc on
banana crops around the world, it’s a race
against the clock. —Kevin Allen