Do We Need a GMO Banana?

Bananas are one of the world’s most popular fruits, with 114 million tons produced globally in 2017.1 While there are more than 1,000 varieties of bananas, most commercialized bananas sold in U.S. and European grocery stores are the Cavendish type. This variety accounts for about 47% of global banana production.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), Cavendish bananas are more resilient to the effects of global travel, making them popular for international trade. Further, they achieve high yields per hectare and are less prone to damage from storms due to their short stems. Cavendish plants are also valued for their ability to recover quickly from natural disasters.2

Taken together, Cavendish bananas may see like the perfect fruit, but there’s a downside to the lack of diversity that comes from widespread production of just one variety of banana: it’s incredibly prone to diseases and has even been said to be at risk of extinction.3

While genetic engineering has been touted as the only way to save the banana, the French Agricultural Research Centre for International Development (CIRAD) has announced the development of a new, 100% organic, disease-resistant banana that’s non-GMO and coming to commercial markets in March 2020.

New Non-GMO Banana Is Naturally Disease Resistant

CIRAD launched an initiative to diversify bananas in order to impart natural disease resistance. The new variety, called Pointe d’Or, was developed through crossing in partnership with the banana industry in Guadeloupe and Martinique and the Tropical Technical Institute, and was selectively bred to be resistant to black Sigatoka, a leaf-spot disease caused by the fungus Mycosphaerella fijiensis.

The disease ravages banana leaves, reducing photosynthetic capability and yields.4 CIRAD explained in a press release:5

“Currently, just one variety of dessert banana is grown throughout the world for the export market: the Cavendish. But this variety is particularly sensitive to some diseases, such as black Sigatoka, which is present in many production areas, including the French West Indies, and has so far required phytosanitary treatments.

To combat this disease, several actions have been undertaken in partnership with the French West Indian sector, including the creation of a resistant variety … ”

Pointe d’Or, which was previously called Number 925, is naturally resistant to black Sigatoka and was described by CIRAD as a “triumph of research, since past attempts to create new varieties of banana by different international teams have ended in failure.” The new banana variety is entering a commercial testing phase in metropolitan France and was introduced commercially in early March 2020 in the Ile-de-France region.

“This is an opportunity for consumers to obtain a new organic product that meets their expectations in terms of health and environment,” CIRAD noted. Frédéric Salmon, a geneticist and plant breeder at CIRAD in Guadeloupe, added:6

“The natural resistance of the Pointe d’Or to black Sigatoka, which now affects all production zones throughout the world, is a considerable advantage since it avoids the need for any phytosanitary treatments against this fungus and paves the way for organic banana production in the French West Indies.”

There are now 35 hectares (86.5 acres) of Pointe d’Or bananas being grown in Guadeloupe and Martinique, and between 1,000 and 1,200 tons are expected to be produced in 2020.

In addition to Pointe d’Or, the CIRAD partnership has also undertaken additional actions to combat black Sigatoka disease in bananas, including developing an agro-ecological cropping system that integrates prophylaxis and biological control methods.7

Panama Disease Triggering Race for GMO Banana

While black Sigatoka is susceptible to fungicides, another fungal threat also exists for bananas. Panama disease, i.e., Fusarium wilt, is also ravaging bananas, prompting calls that only genetic engineering can save them. In August 2019, the Colombian government confirmed that a new outbreak of Panama disease caused by the strain Tropical Race 4, or TR4, had emerged.8

This is especially problematic considering that growers in this part of the globe are major contributors to the world’s banana supply. This situation has created a race to genetically engineer a fruit to withstand the fungus, although this problem has been seen before.

In fact, the Gros Michel was the first banana variety sold in the U.S., but it disappeared due to the TR1 fungus. The Cavendish was introduced next, in part because it was resistant to TR1, but it’s vulnerable to TR4. Researchers have not yet found any fungicide capable of killing the fungus and have determined it is able to live in the soil for up to 30 years.

Using breeding methods to modify the Cavendish is not possible, as the variety is sterile and propagated only by cloning. Now, several teams are employing genetic alterations to save the banana crop, using the gene editing tool CRISPR, which comes with its own set of problems.

However, with the introduction of Pointe d’Or, it’s now been shown that disease-resistant bananas can be created without the use of genetic engineering and even without the need for fungal treatments.

Eric de Lucy, president of The Union of Banana Producer Groups of Guadeloupe and Martinique, said during a press conference, “What we are experiencing is a global revolution in the history of the banana. This banana is unique in the world. It is quite an adventure and I am personally emotional about the fact that we developed such an exceptional product.”9

The Pointe d’Or banana, by the way, is said to have a smoother flavor than the Cavendish, with a taste that stays longer in your mouth. And while it’s also said to be more fragile and prone to browning than the durable Cavendish, stores are already training their employees about careful handling and signs will educate consumers about the differences.

“The Pointe d’Or is not the same banana. It doesn’t behave the same, it is not grown or packaged in the same way,” Tino Dambas, a Pointe d’Or producer based in Guadeloupe, told Fresh Plaza — and that’s precisely the point.10

Greater Diversity, Not GMOs, Will Save Bananas

It’s important to reiterate that Pointe d’Or is organic and non-GMO, suggesting that the decadeslong rhetoric that only genetic engineering can save the banana from extinction is wrong.11 What’s more, as far back as 2003, when media reports were warning that bananas could be extinct within 10 years, FAO noted that greater genetic diversity in commercial bananas was necessary:12

“The Cavendish banana is a ‘dessert type’ banana that is cultivated mostly by the large-scale banana companies for international trade … Virtually all commercially important plantations grow this single genotype.

Its vulnerability is inevitable and not unexpected. The Cavendish’s predecessor, the Gros Michel, suffered the same fate at the hands of fungal diseases, so this is a warning that we may need to find a replacement for the Cavendish banana in the future.”

At the time, FAO noted that small-scale farmers had maintained a broad genetic pool that could be used to improve future banana crops. In calling for the development of more diversity in banana crops, particularly for export bananas, they noted that while the development of resistant bananas would also be important, this did not necessarily mean the use of transgenics.

Further, back in 2003, they called for the promotion of awareness of the “inevitable consequences of a narrow genetic base in crops and the need for a broader genetic base for commercial bananas.”13 If this advice had been heeded then, bananas would be in a much better place today.

Promote Diversity — Try Something Besides Cavendish

It’s possible that your only reference point of a banana is the Cavendish — a variety that’s known more for durability during travel than taste. In fact, the Cavendish is said to be mild and mushy, not necessarily tasty, which means you could be in for a treat when it comes to trying one of the many other banana varieties available. These include:14,15,16

Cooking bananas — Sold green, these are almost considered potato-like and can be roasted or steamed like a starchy vegetable.

Red — This one wins the “most delicious” prize most often in the U.S. and is similar to a Philippine staple variety known as Lacatan. Sweet and creamy, this one has a dark magenta shade with dark streaks, and bruises easily.

Churro — Like a squatty version of the Cavendish, these are sometimes marketed as “chunky bananas.” Grown in Mexico and found in Latin American markets in the U.S., they taste best very ripe for sweetness with a hint of sour.

Pisang Raja — Also known as Musa Belle bananas, these are popular in Indonesia and often used to make banana fritters.

Plantain — Dryer and not as sweet as the Cavendish, these are often used as an entrée food rather than a dessert. They’re cooked so often in the tropics where they’re grown that some aren’t aware they can be eaten raw.

Manzano — Native to Central and South America, it’s often sold in Asian specialty stores and is actually a subspecies of apple bananas; it’s firmer than a Cavendish with a strong tart apple aroma that quickly turns sweet.

Lady Fingers — Smaller and sweeter than the longer, milder Cavendish, these 5- to 6-inch treats are good for portion control, especially for kids. They can even be grown in a pot.

Baby — A small variety, these are marketed with different names; Chiquita markets it as the Pisang Mas, from Malaysia. Dole has two types: Orito and Ladyfinger, the latter being the sweetest. The skins are brown with dark streaks when ripe.

Pisang lemak manis — Aka 40-day bananas, they mature quickly, have green, tapered tips when they’re unripe and are suitable both fresh and cooked.

Pisang rastali or kesat — This variety is just 4 to 6 inches long and sturdy, with reddish black mottled skin, jelly-like flesh and an apple-like acidity.

Ae Ae — One of the most visually interesting varieties, their peels are green, white and variegated; they can be eaten raw or cooked, and are usually more expensive.

Praying hands — This is one of the oddest-looking types, especially in a bunch. It’s very fat with a creamy texture; the flavor is very sweet-tart and fruit-like.

Pitogo — Definitely an odd-looking variety, these look more like a fig than a banana, grow on 10- to 12-foot high plants in tight clusters, and are more flavorful and nutritious than the Cavendish.

Pisang merah — Plump and rather small, these are mild and creamy, blacken only slightly and are quite soft when ripe.

As for nutrition, bananas are an excellent source of vitamin B6, with plenty of dietary fiber and potassium, manganese, vitamin C, biotin and copper. They’re quite high in sugar, however, which is why they should be eaten only in moderation or even unripe, when they contain higher amounts of digestive-resistant starch, which can benefit your gut health.

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