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VERSEKERING

The banana is dying.

The world's most popular fruit is facing extinction, and scientists are racing to use gene-editing to save it. To succeed, they'll need to overcome an even bigger problem: opposition to GMO crops 

 According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, this amounts to 50 million tonnes of Cavendish bananas every year – 99 per cent of all global banana exports.

The UK, which imports five billion bananas every year, has become used to this seemingly endless supply of cheap and nutritious fruits shipped from plantations thousands of kilometres away across the Atlantic. But the high-volume, low-margin banana industry has been balancing on a knife edge for decades. “It looks very stable because we’re getting bananas, but the environmental and social costs that allow that to happen have been high,” says Dan Bebber, a researcher at the University of Exeter who works on a UK government-funded project aimed at securing the future of the banana. If one part of this tightly-wound supply chain snaps, the whole export industry could come tumbling down.


Despite its ubiquity, the Cavendish is something of a genetic outlier among crops: because it has three copies of each chromosome, it is sterile and can only reproduce by creating clones of itself. This makes the Cavendish an ideal crop to grow at scale – farmers know how a plantation of Cavendish bananas will respond to pesticides, how fast its fruit will ripen, how many bananas each plant will yield. “You know what’s going to happen to a Cavendish banana when you pick it,” says Bebber. “When you put it in a refrigerated container, you know exactly what’s going to come out of the other end most of the time.” Cavendish plants are short, so they don’t blow over easily in a hurricane, are easy to spray with pesticides, and reliably produce lots of bananas.

By concentrating all their efforts on the Cavendish, banana exporters have built a system that allows a tropical fruit grown thousands of kilometres away to appear on supermarket shelves in the UK for less than £1 per kilo – undercutting fruits like apples which are grown in dozens of varieties much closer to home. “People want cheap bananas,” says Bebber. “The system is set up for a very uniform crop.” To put it bluntly – uniformity equals higher profits-per-plant for banana producers. “They are addicted to Cavendish,” says Ploetz, today a 66-year-old professor at the University of Florida’s Tropical Research and Education Centre. It is this genetic uniformity that lays the foundation for an $8 billion-a-year export industry.

So far, Latin America, which grows almost all of the world’s export bananas – including those for the US and Europe – has escaped TR4. But, Ploetz says, it’s only a matter of time. “Our concern in Central America is that if somebody has an outbreak on their property, they are going to keep their mouths shut, and then it’ll have spread widely by the time people realise it’s there,” he says.

Faced with a crisis that could see the Cavendish gone forever, a handful of researchers are racing to use gene-editing to create a better banana and bring the world’s first TR4-
resistant Cavendish to the market. To get there, they will butt up against not only the limitations of technology, but resistance from lawmakers, environmentalists and consumers wary of GM crops. But as TR4 closes in on Latin America, gene-editing may be the last chance we have to save the one banana we have chosen above all others. Read the Full story on  Wired. Link above

 


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