- The Washington Times - Friday, January 31, 2003

Alas, the poor banana. It's been turned into a sexless clone, defenseless in the face of an onslaught of disease.

Indeed, the plight of the supermarket banana is so dire that some scientists are predicting it will disappear from grocery shelves in the next 10 years unless something dramatic occurs to save it.

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The last, best hope may be genetic modification. A global consortium of scientists announced plans last year to sequence the banana genome within five years, but nobody knows whether consumers will accept that banana.

“There's been a big backlash over genetically modifying foods,” said James Pierce, associate professor of genetics and biotechnology at University of the Sciences in Philadelphia, “But what will people do if there are no more bananas and the only way to save them is through genetic engineering?

“This may be the first example where a major food needs to be genetically engineered in order to be maintained.”

Reports of the banana's demise are premature, but there is no question that the threat is worrisome, said Randy Ploetz, a plant pathologist with the University of Florida and a banana expert.

There are many kinds of bananas. The banana that consumers in the United States are familiar with is the Cavendish, a hybrid developed more than a century ago. Rather than reproducing sexually, all Cavendish banana trees are grown from cuttings. They are essentially clones with nearly identical genetic makeup.

Because Cavendish bananas lack genetic diversity, it is difficult to breed varieties that are resistant to new pests and diseases while still maintaining taste, long shelf life and other qualities that make the banana so popular.

Banana plantations worldwide are being devastated by a fungus known as black Sigatoka, which was first recognized in the Sigatoka Valley of Fiji in 1963. The fungus can cut banana production by as much as 50 percent and accelerate ripening, which limits exports.

Banana growers have been bombarding the black Sigatoka with fungicides, but the pest keeps developing resistance to each new fungicide. Meanwhile, the costs and environmental consequences of applying pesticides are mounting.

In the 1950s, a relentless soil fungus called Panama disease wiped out the then-dominant banana variety, Gros Michel. Now, in addition to black Sigatoka, a new variety of the Panama disease is back, destroying Cavendish banana plantations in Asia, Australia and Africa. It has not yet appeared in the Western Hemisphere, although it may just be a matter of time.

“These are two very serious diseases, and it's going to be an uphill battle to continue producing cheap export bananas that have the quality that consumers expect,” Mr. Ploetz said.

A hybrid that is resistant to black Sigatoka has been developed in Honduras and is being widely cultivated in Cuba, but it's a “soft banana” that ripens in seven to 10 days compared with the Cavendish's typical 28 days, Mr. Ploetz said.

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