Home World There are over 1,000 varieties of bananas and we eat one of them. Here’s why it’s absurd | Dan Saladino

There are over 1,000 varieties of bananas and we eat one of them. Here’s why it’s absurd | Dan Saladino

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 There are over 1,000 varieties of bananas and we eat one of them. Here's why it's absurd | Dan Saladino

The World Banana Forum meeting last week in Rome didn’t make many headlines. But what was discussed there has serious implications for everyone. The ubiquitous yellow fruit is the proverbial canary in the mine of our modern food system, showing just how fragile it is. And the current fate of the banana should invite us all to become champions of dietary diversity.

When you peel a banana, you are the target of an almost miraculous effect. A $10 billion supply chain. The one that sends seemingly endless quantities of a tropical fruit halfway around the world to be among the cheapest and most readily available products in supermarket aisles (on average, around 12p per banana). But, incredibly, there is no backup plan or built-in safety net if the single variety on which most of the world’s trade depends begins to fail.

The most notable takeaway from this year’s forum was a seemingly innocuous comment made during the event’s opening speech. The Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Dr. Qu Dongyu, questioned why, with more than 1,000 known varieties of bananas, the world relies primarily on just one, species called Cavendish. This must change, he said, implying that we are all part of the problem.

Most people don’t wonder why all the bananas they’ve eaten look and taste pretty much the same. Most of us will never try a Blue Java from Indonesia with its soft and creamy texture and its taste of vanilla ice cream, or Chinese banana so aromatic that it was given this name go San heong, meaning “you can smell it from the nearby mountain”. The demand for inexpensive, high-yielding varieties has resulted in vast monocultures of a single type of banana being traded globally, and this is also true for many other crops. Homogeneity of the food system is a risky strategy because it reduces our ability to adapt in a rapidly changing world.

Unlike wild bananas, which grow from seeds, each Cavendish is a clone, the offspring of a slice of the plant’s suckers growing underground. This means that it has no way to evolve and therefore cannot adapt to new threats that arise in the environment. Panama disease, also known as Fusarium wilt, is prevalent in Cavendish banana monocultures in Asia, Australia, Africa and, more recently, Latin America and the Caribbean, United States. 80% source bananas sold throughout the world. It only takes a few spores carried on a spade or even on clothing to contaminate a plantation, and growing Cavendish on these lands is no longer an option.

One solution to this devastating disease is to use genetic modification or gene editing to develop more resistant bananas. Queensland University of Technology professor James Dale has spent decades working on a modified version of the Cavendish designed to be “highly resistant” to the Panama disease variant that attacks the Cavendish. But Dale doesn’t think it’s a silver bullet. The long-term answer, he says, is to introduce greater diversity into the food system.

During research for my book Eating to Extinction, a conversation with Dale proved revealing. Monocultures don’t exist in nature, he told me, and we need to learn from them. There used to be much greater diversity in the global food system. But by introducing a smaller number of highly productive crops, this diversity was lost. In response to this, scientists at the UK’s leading crop research centres, the National Institute of Agricultural Botany (NIAB) in Cambridge and the John Innes Center in Norwich, are working to bring diversity back to fields by using genetics from heirloom varieties that have been pushed to the brink of extinction by modern varieties.

Scientists are interested in other precarious crops, such as coffee, made up of varieties from a handful of plants sent around the world in the 18th and 19th centuries. The climate crisis is making the future of the coffee species we depend on – Arabica and Robusta – bleak. That is why botanists at Kew have identified viable and delicious alternatives among more than 120 other coffee species around the world. The most promising is Coffea stenophyllaa species found in Sierra Leone that nearly became extinct in the 1950s.

At the political level, there are reasons to be optimistic. During Cop15, held in December 2022 in Montreal, 196 countries signed up to the Global Biodiversity Framework. The main commitment is to save 30% of nature on land and sea by 2030, part of which includes urgent measures to “end the extinction of threatened species”. What is less known is that these endangered species also include domesticated species, referring to the approximately 7,000 plants that humans have used for food over millennia.

There are also farmer initiatives, such as Wildfarmed, which is experimenting with a wider range of wheat varieties. The flour is already finding its way onto the high street via major retailers and national pizza chains. Meanwhile, in the east of England, Hodmedod’s, a company set up by three food and agricultural researchers, is looking back at what was grown in Iron Age Britain and reviving neglected varieties of cereals and legumes, including pug peas and emmer wheat.

But if Qu Dongyu is right that a big problem is the lack of “retailer and consumer acceptance of different varieties,” we all need to step up our efforts. We need to make it known that we want greater diversity. This rallying cry could be as simple as buying a variety of beans or peas we’ve never tried before, an unusual type of wheat, or even – if one showed up in the store – a banana different.

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