Belgian lab a diverse safeguard against 'bananageddon'

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Belgian lab a diverse safeguard against 'bananageddon'

A far cry from the banana estates of Latin America, Ugandan fields or plantations in the Canary Islands, a Belgian university campus hosts a basement laboratory that may be a lifeline for a commodity crop under threat. The World Collection of Bananas is no ordinary lab, with myriad test tubes packed with thousands of varieties of the world's favorite sweet fruit. At we caught up with Leuven University's Professor Rony Sweenen to discuss a safeguard against what has been dubbed 'Bananageddon'.

Around 1,400 varieties of bananas line up on shelves of the Leuven University’s tropical crop improvement laboratory; test tubes filled with every imaginable banana variety in a space of 30 square meters, for the purpose of securing the fruit's future for generations to come.

Under the auspices of Bioversity International, the team's main objective is to safeguard biodiversity and produce high yielding varieties that will eventually be made available to smallholders the world over.

World banana collection - panorama

The international banana industry currently depends heavily on the Cavendish variety with millions of tons exported from Latin America, India, the Philippines and elsewhere each year. But, with increasing concern over the spread of Panama disease Tropical Race IV (TR4) and media reports of a 'Bananageddon', fears are growing that this disease could wipe out certain production areas completely.

Indeed the industry awaits an upcoming report from the United Nations on the spread of Panama disease and the effect it's having on the international banana farming community.

This is not a sentiment that Swennen agrees with necessarily, adopting a more staid approach. As one of the world’s leading experts on the fruit, he’s been overseeing the work at Leuven University for around 30 years and emphasizes the World Banana Collection's goal is to stabilize the industry and not to replenish stocks if the Cavendish variety is wiped out worldwide.

"It's a big problem but it is being a little overstated by some sections of the media. So one big statement is 'TR4 is killing Cavendish', but that's when you have bad management. But no one tells the story that for 20 years TR4 has been in the plantations in the Philippines but still the Philippines is exporting; so simply for some members of the press it's not exciting enough," Swennen adds.

"Sure things are going on around the world with TR4 but with good management countries are still able to export so if you were to believe everything you read in the press, we'd have to give up Cavendish at the moment. Not true.

"Almost 30 years ago in 1985, we brought a large variety of bananas to Leuven University and gradually this was further developed by an international team and now it's recognized by the United Nations.

He mentions bananas in the field can take up six square meters for one plant, but a lot more genetic stock can be held in the lab.

"In addition, bananas from different ecological conditions - with some liking a hot climate and others preferring a cold climate - if you put them all in a lab in a test tube you have them all under the same conditions," he says.

"The industry relies on one single variety. Our aim is to bring more diversity to smallholders which would mean a more diverse farm, more quality in terms of vitamins and minerals and a better diet.

"We consider bananas to be the backbone of the whole farming system and the collection is trying to make the industry and therefore the whole system stable."

Disease resistance through diversity

According to Swennen, all banana farms worldwide will be exposed to some kind of disease at some point. He feels the concerns about the spread of TR4 in particular are of course very real, but farmers and the industry at large shouldn't loose sight of good management practices to curb the spread of this potentially devastating disease.

"All farms in all countries are exposed to some kind of disease so we want to bring to individual farmers, mainly the small holders, new varieties so that they can replace the susceptible varieties," he says.

"Are all of our varieties resistant? Some yes, some no – that is the basic answer. The truth is we don't know the response of the entire collection and this is a major part of what we are trying to achieve.

"We are testing in different environments as many varieties as possible so that we can document the quality and the resistance of the different varieties. The major challenge at this very moment is there is not enough documented evidence. We need to do more research to document and although we’ve been doing this for quite a long time, it’s incomplete information.

For how much longer will extra stocks be added to the World Banana Collection, and what happens next? Sweenen and his team of eight staff have a target of reaching 2,000 variety collections. Once that's achieved the focus then switches to making information about the varieties available and spreading the news around the world so banana growers and exporters can make informed decisions.

"Based on our considerations, once we have 2,000 we'll have almost everything. There is an issue with some countries not being so keen to release the germplasm. Some varieties out there do not belong to anybody, as such they belong to the world and so this is a project for everybody.

"The major challenge is that we need to properly document each variety and make all of the information available online so anyone can start shopping and looking at the varieties they want for their conditions. And shopping should be free of charge as this is a non- profit organization.

"Collection and storing is not good enough; making the information available is our top priority. That’s why we are supporting regional collections so we bring a lot of the germplasm to specific countries in the world like Uganda or like Philippines so people in the field can see and say 'my goodness this one exists and I didn't know about this variety'."

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