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Can the fruit still be saved?

The banana we know is on a path that leads it to its end. The race to change its destiny is a competition between traditional agriculture and the most advanced biological engineering

Popular Sciences

The new banana varieties. Illustration: Popular Science
A banana", says Juan Fernando Aguilar, "is not just any banana". On an area the size of a shopping mall, the 46-year-old Aguilar grows no less than 300 varieties of bananas. Most of the commercial cultivation, by the way, focuses on one type of banana - the one familiar to us since the dawn of our childhood. The fruits in Aguilar's orchard are amazingly diverse. Some of his bananas are thick and extend up to over 30 cm; Others are thin and small as a pinky. Some should be eaten as they are, fresh and sweet, and some function more like potatoes: they should be cooked and baked or fried just like chips. For almost every American and European, a banana is a banana: yellow and sweet, uniform in size, with a firm texture, without seeds. And it is precisely this banana of ours, called 'Cavendish', that Aguilar does not grow here. "And for you," says the main banana grower of the FHIA - the Honduras Foundation for Agricultural Research - "the 'Cavendish' is the banana."

The Cavendish is probably the perfect food. Bananas are convenient and nutritious; cheap and available. Americans eat bananas more than any other fresh fruit. They consume an average of 12 kg per person per year. The billion Cavendish bananas that are consumed in the world every year are also perfect from a genetic point of view: each one is an exact copy of all the others. Her origin has no significance. Whether it comes from Honduras or Thailand, Jamaica or the Canary Islands, each Cavendish is an identical twin to the first banana found in Southeast Asia, brought to a botanical garden in the Caribbean at the beginning of the 20th century, and brought into commercial cultivation about 50 years ago.

This identity is in the skin of the banana. After 15,000 years of cultivation, the banana is too perfect, lacking the genetic diversity that is key to species survival. What hurts one banana, can hurt all of them. A fungus or bacterial disease that affects one plant can go on a global journey, destroying millions of clusters and leaving grocery store shelves empty. Wild script? Not when you consider that there has already been a banana apocalypse before. Until the early 60s, cereal bowls and ice cream cones were filled with 'gross michel', a larger and, by all accounts, tastier banana than the fruit we eat today. Like the 'Cavendish', the 'Gross Michel' accounted for the vast majority of sweet banana sales in America and Europe. But in the early years of the 20th century, a fungus called 'Panama disease' began to damage the 'Gros Michel' crop. The disease first appeared in Suriname, then made its way to the Caribbean, and finally reached Honduras in the 20s. Honduras was then the largest banana grower in the world; Today it ranks third, after Ecuador and Costa Rica.

By 1960 the main importers were already on the brink of bankruptcy, and the future of the fruit was in jeopardy. The 'Cavendish', which was once an almost unknown variety, was eventually accepted as a replacement for the 'Gross Michel'. Its great advantage was its resistance to the 'Panama disease'. But in 1992, a new strain of the fungus, a strain capable of harming Cavendish, was discovered in Asia. Since then, 'Panama disease race 4' has consumed plantations in Indonesia, Malaysia, Australia and Taiwan, and it is now spreading in large parts of Southeast Asia. Although it has not yet arrived in Africa or South America, most experts agree that it will arrive soon. A global effort to save the fruit is now underway, an effort characterized by two contrasting approaches to dealing with the looming threat. On one side are the traditional banana growers like Aguilar, who grow experimental varieties in plantations, and try to create an alternative plant that tastes and looks so similar to 'Cavendish' that consumers will not notice the difference. And on the other hand, there are biological engineers like Roni Svenen, equipped with the banana's genome, which has already been largely deciphered. They modify the plant's chromosomes, sometimes inbreeding it with DNA from other species, to come up with a stronger 'Cavendish' that will resist 'Panama disease' and other diseases.

Honduras is in many ways the epicenter of America's banana market. More than a hundred years ago, a couple of companies from the United States, now known as "Chiquita" and "Doll", established some of the first commercial banana plantations in the world. By the beginning of the 20th century, bananas had already surpassed apples as the most favorite fruit of the Americans, and they were so popular that in the days before municipal garbage collection, the classic slip on a banana peel was a real danger. The problem of banana peels actually contributed to the development of municipal garbage disposal systems.

Bananas have always been a hotbed of technology. Since they are a sensitive product in terms of timing - they must be picked while they are green, and sent to the markets exactly at the time of ripening - there was a need for the development of systems that would introduce precision into the picking and shipping processes. But the main push for banana technology has always been the search for new varieties. FHIA was opened in 1986 as part of an initiative to promote local economic development. One of the two new varieties born following the establishment of the fund, which is financed by government and private grants, was the 'Goldfinger' banana, also known as FHIA-01. The 'Goldfinger' was developed with great efforts by hybridizing samples of over 350 types of bananas originally collected by "United Fruit" scientists. It is a very versatile fruit, suitable for cooking and eating; It has a sour apple-like taste and is one of the few cultivated varieties that has not been turned down by the buying public.

The 'Goldfinger' was created by Philip Rowe, a well-known supporter of the traditional methods of growing bananas; Rowe died in 2002, and the show passed into Aguilar's hands. Aguilar, like Rowe, believes that conventional hybridization, and not genetic engineering, is the best way to create a replacement for 'Cavendish'. The 'Goldfinger' was proof of this approach: it was easy to ship and found favor in certain markets, particularly Australia. But its taste was not as sweet as the 'Quandish' and it never gained traction among the Americans.

Each of Aguilar's experimental varieties is labeled and planted in a separate row. To put the new bananas to the test, no fungicides are used here, so you can easily see the difference between resistant and healthy plants and the damaged ones. The strong plants have beautifully green leaves. 'Panama disease' and a disease called 'Black Sigatoka' (which, unlike 'Panama disease', exists in Central America), cause the leaves to wither and break, leaving the fruit unprotected from the sun and reducing photosynthesis. The dying plant cannot produce sugar, and the fruit yield is severely affected. Sigatoka is a serious problem, but unlike Panama disease, it can be controlled with chemical sprays.

Bananas grow from an underground root structure; What sticks out into the ground is more like a stalk than a stem. A long reed, covered with small flowers, rises from the stem. The female flowers become a fruit at the base of the inflorescence column, while the male flower - apple and red - grows right at the end of the stem, bending it downwards under its weight. The fruits grow in spiral groups called "hands", a single banana is called a "finger". A banana plant can grow up to 12 "hands"; And all in all, the entire yield of the plant is called a "cluster". Bananas differ from most other cultivated plants in that almost all varieties, including the Cavendish, lack seeds. That dark, round center in the banana slice is the remnant of what was once the fruit's reproductive core.

Cultivated bananas never reproduce by themselves. New stems grow from the existing root, sometimes for many years. Manually transferring pollen from one male to a female on another plant is, after all, the method by which traditional banana growers, like Aguilar's team, develop new varieties. Most mornings, usually right at dawn, a group of fighters on battered bicycles make their way through the dirt fields. They move from plant to plant, collecting pollen from the male flowers and transferring it to female flowers, meticulously documenting their actions. All this in order to obtain seeds and use them to grow Aguilar's experimental varieties, one of which, he hopes, will eventually yield a replacement for 'Cavendish': tasty and consumer-friendly. What are the chances that a single seed will eventually produce a healthy and thriving hybrid? "About 1 in 10,000," says Aguilar.

The appearance is important in banana marketing, but the taste is just as important. As Aguilar leads me through the fields, we pass carefully dying rows of exotic bananas. He stops next to a group of plants labeled "Ompico", plucks a fruit from the stem, peels it, and has a quick taste before passing me a piece. It's not bad, maybe a little more refined than the typical banana. However, the big problem with the 'Ompico' is that it ripens too quickly. She will never make it to the shops on time. A few lines later, we crouch in the shade of a particularly low plant. Height is also important. The 'Gros Michel' was too tall so that winds could easily topple it. The 'Quandish' is considerably lower, and therefore more durable in severe weather. Aguilar picks and tastes another banana. None of the bananas we taste are 'Cavendish' or descendants of 'Cavendish'. Neither of them is particularly similar in taste to the banana I'm used to. Just as the importers feared that consumers would reject today's most popular banana when it replaced the Gros Michel, they fear that a fruit that is not as mellow and sweet as the Cavendish will destroy markets.

Away from the steamy banana lands of the Caribbean, a completely different effort was made to create the banana of the future. In a greenhouse the size of a basketball court, Roni Svenen runs the 'Laboratory for Tropical Crop Improvement'. He oversees the world's largest collection of bananas and bananas. More than 200 varieties are kept in rows in test tubes, tiny 'vegetarians' covered in glass. Each of them is a potential donor of genetic material for use in engineering new banana varieties. In the last decade, Svenen and his colleagues deciphered and changed banana genes in the hope of creating resistance to the pests that strike the commercial varieties of the fruit: 'Black Sigatoka'; Nematodes, a type of tiny worm, and the various strains of 'Panama disease'.

Svenen says that the spread of these pathogens is dangerous in developing countries, especially in East Africa. In the densely populated countries around Lake Victoria - Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Burundi and Rwanda - bananas are first and foremost food. The banana provides close to the total daily carbohydrate intake in some menus. Bananas are also essential for the other crops of the region: they provide shelter for tropical vegetation, and allow staple foods such as beans and sweet potatoes to grow in the ground. Without bananas the diet of 20 million people would be undermined. Svenen has already created one sweet banana that, by using genetic material from radishes, enjoys built-in resistance to 'black Sigatoka'. The laboratory is also developing high-yielding bananas for Africa, and a banana that has been modified to be rich in beta-carotene. Svenen emphasizes that biotechnology is the only way to save the 'Cavendish', which, due to being completely free of nuclei, cannot be improved by traditional hybridization methods. The FHIA's approach, of breeding a new strain from scratch, he claims, is too slow.

How much time is left for Cavendish? Some scientists estimate that she has five years left; Some believe ten. Others hope more. For Aguilar his personal worst-case scenario: "What's happening is," he says with a penetrating look, "that the 'Panama disease' comes before we have a good replacement." And what will happen then", he continues, almost trembling under the broad expanse of a tall banana plant, "that people will simply switch to apples".

Will one of them replace your banana?

"The Ladyfinger" - it is sweeter than the 'Quandish', has a firmer texture and is about 7.5 cm long. The problem is that its yield is too low for large markets.

"Prata Ana" (Prata Ana) - after the sweetness that floods the palate with the first bite, comes a tingling sourness. The 10 cm fruit is problematic: according to Aguilar, the fruit, which is a success in Brazil, is a good candidate to replace the 'Quandish' if the disease arrives before a better choice can be developed.

FHIA-17 – This variety, which is so new that it does not yet have a name, was created from 'Gros Michel'. It is slightly larger than the banana we are familiar with, and has a "mixed" taste.

FHIA-26 – one of Aguilar's new hybrids, is half the size of the 'Cavendish', but slightly thicker. It has a concentrated and sweet taste, and a smooth, almost creamy texture. However, its disadvantage is immediately apparent: its very thin shell will make it difficult to transport it around the world.

Workers collect the flower pollenand pollinate the female flowers with itworks in the banana plantationGermination of banana plants under laboratory conditions
The bananas after the harvest

Juan Aguilar – banana grower at FHIA

The geneticist Roni Svenen works on genetic modification

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