- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 7, 2003

The media often go bananas over a sensational topic, but this time they literally did so. “Yes, we’ll have no bananas: A fungal disease could make the tasty fruit extinct within 10 years,” one newspaper exclaimed. “Bananas in crisis: We unpeel the truth,” declared one punny headline, while another detailed: “Why bananas are fighting to save their skins.”

These were in response to an article in the lay science journal, New Scientist. But biotechnology, specifically the process of splicing new genes into plants called “transgenics,” will make monkeys out of the media. Even more importantly, the same techniques will incredibly expand agricultural biodiversity.

The banana is the world’s most widely consumed fruit. Rich in potassium, calcium, phosphorus and vitamins A, B6 and C, nearly 100 million tons are produced every year by about 120 countries in subtropical and tropical zones. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, bananas are the world’s fourth most important food crop.

The problem is that while there are about 500 banana varieties, virtually the entire export market comprises one strain called the Cavendish. And these are all clones, albeit not of the “Star Wars” variety. That’s because they’re grown from cuttings, not seeds.

It’s genetic variance, whether in plants, insects, or humans, that allows survivors of a disease to confer resistance to offspring. Without such variance resistance is futile. In the banana’s case, this allows the spread of diseases and pests such as the funguses wilt and black sigatoka, root-munching worms, and weevils. The lack of seeds also makes it terribly hard to use traditional cross-breeding techniques to induce resistance.

The answer, which was actually discussed in the New Scientist article but which the media unhappily ignored, is splicing disease-resistant genes into the fruit. But how long must we wait for such futuristic technology? Actually, it’s here.

A disease called Papaya Ring Spot Virus began killing off the fruit plants in Hawaii about 30 years ago, hopping from island to island and then spreading like a lava flow. When it hit the Puna region of the Big Island of Hawaii in 1992, papaya production dropped by a third in just four years.

The crack cops of “Hawaii Five-O” couldn’t stop it, but crack researchers at the Agriculture Department, Pharmacia (now part of Pfizer), and Upjohn soon developed a new variety with the viral coat of a mild strain of the virus spliced into it. This new “Rainbow” variety is virtually identical to the old with one major difference: it is 100 percent immune to PRSV. And it remains that way.

Now researchers in Africa, India, and elsewhere are already splicing such disease-resistant genes into the bananas that are vital for export and to feed their own people.

New genes may come from banks of banana germplasm (living tissue from which new plants can be grown) that are maintained all over the world. One in Belgium alone contains more than 1,100 different specimens.

Yet one of the beauties of biotechnology is that resistance-conferring genes from any plant can be spliced into the bananas.

Transgenics will also promote biodiversity not just in terms of predator protection but in developing plants that can grow in more extreme climates, with less water, and poor soil. The former trend toward one-size-fits-all crops is already being reversed.

“Four or five years ago, you could count the number of canola hybrids [made with both traditional cross-breeding and transgenics] on one hand,” says Barry Coleman, executive director of the North Dakota-based Northern Canola Association. (Canola produces an especially healthy cooking oil.) “Today, there are about 150 to choose from.” Argentina alone now has seven strains of gene-spliced canola.

Even Population Bomb author Paul Ehrlich, as pessimistic a man who has ever eaten a banana, told science writer Paul Raeburn that genetic engineering could “play an important role in maintaining the genetic diversity of crops, since it permits the simultaneous introduction of a given useful trait into all varieties,” and that “locally adapted varieties could be genetically enhanced while remaining in production.”

But we’re not just talking banana health here. Scientists like Charles Arntzen of the University of Arizona Biodesign Institute in Tempe are splicing genes into bananas so that when eaten they will confer immunity to such horrible diseases as hepatitis B, E. coli, and diarrheal illnesses that kill millions of children in underdeveloped nations every year.

So yes, we’ll still have bananas — more than ever, with more varieties than ever. And once we have protected them, they will be protecting us.

Michael Fumento is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a columnist with the Scripps Howard News Service. His book “BioEvolution: How Biotechnology is Changing Our World,” to be published next month by Encounter Books of San Francisco.)

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