Going bananas

When I was slightly younger than my son is now, I remember going to nursery school, and having to take a fruit each week. While most of the class took apples, I was always a little bananas, and would refuse to eat anything else but the yellow fruit.

I must have been a little ahead of my time, as banana consumption has skyrocketed in recent years, and it is now the most-consumed fruit in many parts of the world. It’s a staple of smoothies, that recent, and much healthier, usurper of milkshake’s status.

A banana is also a perfect example of the risks of reducing crop diversity. There are a few thousand species of banana in the world, but commercially, we produce almost exclusively only one – the Cavendish.

But, as a consequence of putting all our eggs in one basket, or bananas in one bunch, a fungal disease is decimating banana plantations around the world. Tropical Race 4 has hit Taiwan, Indonesia and Malaysia hard, and is now making an appearance in South and Central America. Bananas, due to the way they are commercially cultivated cannot develop disease resistance – there are no seeds and new plants are grown from the shoots of the mother plant, and are genetically identical) – so commercial plantations are at risk.

It was a similar fungal disease that removed the then dominant Gros Michel, apparently a tastier alternative, in the 1950’s. Plantations became unable to support the variety, and the blander Cavendish variety, which did not suffer from the same disease, took over.

There’s not yet a viable commercial alternative, meaning it’s quite possible that bananas may not be available in the markets and shops in a few years.

Cue genetic modification to the rescue to create a disease-free alternative and save the starving. In fact, there’s quite a lot of support for this move, as bananas, being sterile, pose no risk of spreading genetic material into the wild, or into non GMO-bananas.

The problem though lies with our reliance on commercial monocultures. People around the world eat thousands of varieties of bananas, eaten right where they’re grown, amidst vibrant plots of multiple crops, where no disease can imperil them. In spite of the rest of the world’s love affair with the banana, 87% of bananas consumed in the world are eaten right where they’re grown, so a GMO banana will do nothing to help developing countries food security.

Genetic modification as we see it now is about control of the food supply and the financial bounty that entails, rather than doing what’s best for anyone.

However, there are cases of minds being put to good use, towards sharing the abundance rather than controlling it. The non-profit Honduras Foundation for Agricultural Research has been working on breeding disease-resistant bananas, and have already come up with one possible alternative – the Goldfinger. Interestingly, they have also succeeded with a technique for producing seeds of the tastier Gros Michel by hand-pollinating the flowers, similar to what happens with vanilla worldwide.

Producing plants in this way means that the plant can develop genetically, naturally, rather than being a sterile hybrid frozen in time.

Watermelons going fast
Disappearing even faster than Cavendish bananas are watermelons – there are only a week or two at most of watermelons left, so this is one of your last chances to enjoy. And for those of you blown away by the sizes last week – “mediums” were listed as 8kg+, though they went up to 12kg, we have small’s available this week too.

Have a wonderful week,
Ian and the Ethical team

To order, head on over to www.ethical.org.za