Bananas, peanuts and the stuggle to thrive |

Bananas, peanuts and the stuggle to thrive

Alan Braunholtz

Peanuts are also high in recognition. They share other attributes. Peanuts and bananas originated in tropical jungles and both have been cultivated for thousands of years. Peanut and banana farms illustrate what can happen when crops become too standardized, a common practice in modern agriculture as a few high yielding varieties become the norm.

Genetic variation is key to healthy plant populations. More varied genetic resources provide greater flexibility to ward off attacks by disease and pests. If you only have one line of defense as soon as a disease or pest breaches it you get an epidemic. Plant breeders try to avoid this by creating resistance in these standardized crops, but we’re not as good as nature. Consequently, the highly evolving natural diseases and pests eventually overcome our monocultures of vulnerable crops.

One solution is the high use of chemicals to combat disease and pests. Bananas and peanuts both rely on heavy pesticide and fungicide applications. Bananas are sprayed 40 times a year. Poor farmers often can no longer grow these crops. They can’t afford the chemicals.

Endangered wild peanut plants could help us out here. Peanuts originated in the Chaco forest in the border regions of Bolivia and Paraguay. Plant geneticists hope to search these forests for the Holy Grail of peanuts, the B-genome parent plant, the original granddaddy peanut from which our commercial peanuts are descended.

The B-genome is thought to be one of the first two wild peanut species crossed. If found, the lost genes for pest and disease resistance can be introduced to their weak and weenie (though high-yielding) commercial offspring. This will allow greater yields for poorer farmers, less exposure to chemicals for pickers, and larger profits.

Unfortunately fallout from a decision by far-removed bankers is scuppering the search for the ultimate peanut. The Chaco forest is home to indigenous people who suffered when energy companies forced a gas pipeline through their forests in 1999, enabling access to migrant farmers who damaged the forest.

Now the Inter America Development Bank approved a loan for the Yabog gas pipeline despite fierce opposition from the local fishing communities. The controlling interests behind this pipeline promotion are Shell and Enron. Wary of worsening the conflict between locals and outsiders (or perhaps to avoid any unwanted attention), the Bolivian government is refusing to issue permits for plant scientists to explore and remove wild peanut plants.

I love peanuts and would hate to see their future threatened by another of Enron’s shell games.

Bananas are a different kettle of fish. Despite their sexual appearance bananas (or the ones we eat) are sterile seedless mutants produced asexually from cuttings. The natural wild banana is full of hard seeds and is inedible.

Occasionally, rare mutant plants produce seedless edible fruits. A chromosome imbalance prevents the seeds from developing inside the fruit. The dark lines in a banana are these vestigial seeds. Ten thousand years ago hunter-gatherers discovered these odd trees and started to grow them using cuttings from the original plant.

There are many varieties of banana today (yellow, red, starchy, sweet, etc.) and all are descended from a cutting of their original mutant plant. Each variety is genetically identical. The whole crop is a clone and almost no change has occurred within a variety for 10,000 years.

Bananas are the most uniform crop on earth and illustrate the perils of monocultures like nothing else. French botanists found a banana known as the Gros Michel in the 1820s. The Gros Michel tasted rich and sweet and soon dominated commercial banana crops. A soil fungus known as Panama disease destroys Gros Michels and is untreatable. Once the fungus is in the soil, even chemical spraying can’t help. Growers then played a “move it or lose it” game, abandoning infested land for clean land until they ran out of clean land in 1950. The less tasty Cavendish then replaced the Gros Michel. The Cavendish is resistant to Panama disease and is the banana you buy in the supermarket.

To people in Africa and Asia, bananas are much more than a unique tasting sweet desert. They are their food staple. Dozens of varieties provide all sorts of food products. Bananas are a starch mash, a banana beer, banana chips. The leaves and fibers are used for roofs, textiles, dyes, etc. Bananas are the crop they depend on.

A new fungal disease, black Sigatoka, is threatening Cavendish and the other varieties, cutting yields by 70 percent and destroying the trees in a few years. Commercial growers deal with it by dousing the trees in fungicide at a high financial and social cost. Poor indigenous farmers can do little except watch their trees die and are suffering the equivalent of the Irish potato blight.

To make matters worse, a new virulent strain of Panama disease that attacks Cavendish is spreading across the world. This can’t be treated with fungicides, and pessimists see bananas as a threatened food source. The only solution is to find new varieties with natural resistance, but how? Plant breeders can do little with an asexual plant.

Honduras produced a new variety with resistance to both diseases, but few like how it tastes – more apple than banana, apparently. Cuba is the only major grower of this variety. Cuba has little money for fungicides and it’s a question of “eat this or eat nothing.”

Genetic modification may save the banana. If the genetic code for wild bananas is sequenced and the sections that provide resistance pinpointed, then maybe these can be introduced by genetic manipulation to edible bananas.

Big banana companies have shied away, though. Biotech is expensive, and GM carries a stigma that may alienate customers. Instead banana genome work is focusing on the African food staple varieties and not our supermarket dessert banana. Uganda is creating its own lab for banana genome research, since its people literally live off the banana.

If they succeed, I hope they have good patent lawyers to protect and keep the varieties affordable. It’d be a shame if somehow the Western world acquired intellectual property rights and control of yet another crop that historically was created and developed in the developing world.

Alan Braunholtz of Vail writes a weekly column for the Daily.

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