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The great banana drought of 2011 and repercussions

By Meryl Williams - posted Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Thanks to the 2006 and 2011 banana 'droughts' caused by cyclones Larry and Yasi, respectively, Australians know that bananas are a fragile crop, not readily replaceable on the menu by other fruit and that the Australian Government is tough, with good reason, on restricting imports.

Despite the florid title, this book on the banana is a good read. It takes in the thousands of year history of the domestication and global spread, out of its Asian and New Guinean cradle, of the most consumed plant food on the planet and the first industrial fruit. Although grown in great quantities, this fruit is the most difficult to breed, having almost no seeds and so being bred from suckers. Thus, many plants are essentially clones of a few types and thus all susceptible to the same diseases, of which many and devastating forms exist, such as Panama disease, a fungus that wiped out the main industrial variety (Gros Michel) grown from the late 1880s to the mid 1950s, to sigatoka and black sigatoka, a scourge of the current main commercial variety, the Cavendish. (As an aside, the South Johnstone Research Station (near Innisfail) of the Queensland Department of Employment, Economic Development and Innovation, does most of Australia's banana research. Today's production is once more under disease threat but the research effort is slim compared to the importance of the fruit and its place as a staple in many poor countries as well as rich markets.

Koeppel's book takes in the science of cultivation (often not heeded by the growers), the extreme difficulty of breeding new varieties (biotechnology may hold the key) and, above all, the politics and political economy of the industrialization of banana production and supply chains. Industrialization led to domineering companies, corruption of South American governments into Banana Republics, worker subjugation and technology innovations on grand scales.


A few words are in order on the science, which Koeppel goes to some trouble to describe. Bananas have been subject to only a small fraction of the research accorded to the other big crops (rice, wheat, maize), partly because their problems are difficult to solve, e.g., breeding for suitable disease resistant types that satisfy all the other market needs, and partly due to 'market failure'. The big companies that could easily have afforded to pay could not be sure of appropriating all the benefits, so relied on other methods such as chemicals, politics and technology to work around the agronomic problems. The market divide between the developed country markets and the food security needs satisfied by bananas, e.g., in Africa, also meant that research needs were complex. However, more recently, publicly funded research, including in Australia, is starting to address the needs, and the private sector is also funding more.

According to Koeppel, the big issue for future application of research is getting permission to test and release GMO bananas as new genetic technology seems to hold the keys to overcoming the impossibly onerous task (in terms of time and scale) in breeding new varieties from a plant with almost no seeds.

Incidentally, if you want a guide to many of the banana varieties grown in the South Pacific, including our versions of the ubiquitous Cavendish, see:

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This is highlights from Banana: the fate of the fruit that changed the world. Dan Koeppel 2008

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About the Author

Dr Meryl Williams is a fisheries specialist with experience in Australian and international fisheries research and policy, especially in Asia and the Pacific region. From 1994-2004 she was Director General of the WorldFish Center in the Philippines and Malaysia. She currently holds a number of non-executive positions, including member of the Governing Board of the International Crop Research Center for the Semi Arid Tropics and is an Honorary Life Member of the Asian Fisheries Society.

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