The greens in the Philippines are fighting all GM food, which is good in some ways and bad in other ways. I mean, we are in the “organic rice” business, and use locally developed hybrids, so cheap, abundant “Genetically modified” rice imports from China are not in our best interest.

But the search for new hybrids of the banana plant to stop crop destruction might be the only way to go in the near future, and the LA Times reports this worry is behind the race of scientists to clarify the genome of the lowly banana plant:

If ever a plant needed biotechnology to help it, it’s the banana, these scientists said.

The DNA data — of a key banana species called Musa acuminata — will help researchers in their efforts to protect the fruit, which is under attack from all sides by a raft of noxious pests.

Most Americans see bananas as a luxury, a fruit for snacks or desert, but the banana and it’s variations (e.g. “plantanos” which is used as a veggie) are eaten by millions in the third world as a valuable source of food, and in some central African countries, it is a major source of food. Destruction of all banana plants by a pest could result in hunger and malnutrition in many areas of Africa.

Even the loss of commercial banana exports could affect many exporting countries. For example, a couple weeks ago, China decided to stop imports of bananas from Mindanao to pressure the Philippines to stop insisting they owned areas off the coast of Luzon.  This wasn’t a simple boycott to those affected: As one local reporter, Bel Cuanan note on her blog :

The big island’s banana exports to China constitute ¼ of our total exports and this boycott could create quite a serious domino effect in Mindanao’s economy.If this continues, many laborers would lose their jobs, which could, in turn, drastically reduce the island’s purchasing power for food, medicines, etc. In addition, the demand for industrial supplies regularly sold to banana plantations, such as plastic covers, cartons, fertilizers, etc., would be severely affected. Such dislocation in Mindanao could easily create a disastrous ripple effect on the whole economy.

But in Central Africa, where the banana are a major source of calories, a blight could result in a major famine.

The lowly banana is a major source of calories for poor farmers. True, there are other crops, but then the potato famine of Ireland and many parts of Europe in the 1840’s showed why the loss of one crop could be a problem. The potato destruction didn’t hurt the rich, who ate bread, but it did result in starvation of the poor who couldn’t afford bread, but whose potato crop was killed.

Luckily, there were many varieties of potatoes so it didn’t take long for a new potato to take the place of the vulnerable strain.

But the dirty little secret is that the banana family is closely related genetically, and sterile. In other words, you can’t crossbreed them like you can other plants, because the domestic banana doesn’t propagate by seeds.

Voila, find a gene in a banana that has normal resistance and genetically manipulate it into a banana that can be eaten.

Again, from the LATIMES:

The Pahang wild species chosen for sequencing — which is resistant to Panama Race 4 and black leaf streak disease — is not good to eat. But it will serve as a guide to track down useful genes and improve the ones that are.

Already, scientists have detected certain genes among the 36,542 in the genome that leap into action when this variety is subjected to attack by black leaf streak disease, suggesting that they may be key to fighting off the fungus.

But it won’t stop there: The Times article mentions how the scientists are planing to add genes from related plants to make them more resistant to pest, and even add genes to increase their nutritional values.

So don’t look now: Franken bananas are in your future.

Since the alternative is using toxic pesticides or seeing famine and increase poverty in poor areas, I’m not sure that genetically modified bananas would be a bad thing.
Factoid: all bananas come from a single plant, domesticated in the western highlands of Papua New Guinea 8000 years ago.

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Nancy Reyes is a retired physician living in the rural Philippines.

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