Bananas: the green gold of the South
There are few people in the world who are not familiar with bananas. With an annual production of 145 million metric tons in over 130 countries, bananas are the fourth most important food crop in the world. One third of all bananas are cultivated in Asia, another third in Latin America and the other in Africa. Only 15% of the worldwide production of bananas is exported to Western countries, which means that 85% of bananas are cultivated by small farmers to be consumed and sold at local and regional markets. Africa is highly dependent on banana cultivation for food, income and job security. Even so, yields fluctuate at around nine percent of their maximum capacity, for reasons including suboptimal conditions for agriculture such as drought and lack of soil nutrients, but above all because of the multitude of diseases and pests that attack the plants.
To guarantee food security in Africa, Asia and Latin America, as well as worldwide export of bananas in the future, there is an urgent need for improved banana varieties with an increased yield and nutritional value, which are resistant to all pests and diseases. This is currently primarily done by classical breeding, but this breeding process is not easy and takes up a lot of time. Efforts are also being undertaken to introduce resistance to disease through biotechnology and genetic transformation of bananas. This will open the way for the generation of new and improved banana varieties that contribute to sustainable, environmentally friendly and economically viable agriculture.
Some Facts and Figures
Bananas are a staple food in the diet of over 400 million people, representing an average of 15% to 27% of their daily calorie intake.
85% of banana production is sold locally and only 15% is exported. Commercial plantations are mainly to be found in South America. Bananas are primarily exported to North America and Europe.
The East African Highlands produce as many bananas for local consumption as all the multinational plantations together produce for export.
West and Central Africa produce 50% of all plantain in the world.
There are hundreds of varieties of “wild” banana but 99% of bananas sold in Western supermarkets are genetically identical Cavendish fruit.
The fungus Fusarium oxysporum, which completely wiped out commercial production of the Gros Michel variety, now also poses a threat to export of the Cavendish banana. Most local banana varieties consumed in Africa are resistant to Fusarium but susceptible to the bacterium Xanthomonas campestris, the Banana Bunchy Top Virus, nematodes and weevils.
Most edible bananas are triploid, sterile and seedless. Developing resistance to disease is therefore very difficult via classical breeding, although biotechnology can help.
75% of Ugandan children under five suffer from anemia. For this reason, genetically modified bananas with higher vitamin A and iron content are being deveveloped.