Don’t worry, be happy — the banana is not going extinct.
And an Alberta plant scientist is helping to ensure that.
“I think we will always have bananas,” said Stan Blade.
But, he added, they might be quite a bit different — such as much smaller and red or purple in colour.
“My view of the world is that in 10 or 15 years, we’ll come into the grocery store and look in the fruit section and maybe we will not have something that looks exactly like the banana that we currently think of.”
Most Canadians are familiar with the long yellow Cavendish banana — the average person eats about 12 pounds of them a year.
But the Cavendish is also at risk from several types of fungal diseases that if left unchecked could, according to some, wipe out much of this variety in a dozen years or less.
Blade, who is also dean of the University of Alberta’s agriculture department, has been involved in international crop research for years, and recently went to Cameroon to work on one of those diseases, which is roughly comparable to clubroot.
And as a board member of the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (which has significant funding from the Gates Foundation), Blade has also been helping to develop new banana cultivars resistant to a disease called banana wilt.
“This is transgenic technology from Taiwan that has shown resistance in these species for similar types of bacterial wilts,” said Blade, who grew up on a dairy farm near Edmonton.
“It’s a huge disease that could have significant economic impact. We’re doing everything from understanding the genomics of the disease to breeding, to finding sources of resistance.”
But, he added, the global banana industry “is not going to fall apart.”
This is not the first time the banana sector has flirted with disaster. In the 1950s, Panama disease wiped out another tasty dessert banana variety called Gros Michel. Focusing much of its production on the Cavendish invited a repeat of that scenario.
“The banana industry isn’t trying that hard,” said Blade. “Banana breeding is extremely difficult. It’s a very complex genetic crop, and really the banana industry is trying to milk Cavendish for as long as it can because it doesn’t want either to invest or to mess up the current cycles.”
Only about 15 per cent of the world’s banana production goes into the international trade. Most bananas are grown domestically by subsistence farmers in Africa, Latin America, and southeast Asia. There are hundreds of varieties, which come in a range of shapes, colours, and sizes for both dessert (or sweet) bananas and cooking bananas (such as plantains).
Blade, who volunteered in Cameroon in his youth, did his PhD on crops grown in the tropical savannahs in West Africa and has been involved in Africa ever since.
He also notes that bananas and grain crops have more in common than you might think — in some parts of Africa, bananas can be turned into tasty alcoholic beverages.
“The banana has high levels of starch that can easily turn into sugar,” said Blade. “I’m not a big beer guy, but banana beer is remarkably tasty.
“I’m not sure the Molson guys would be too happy with the viscosity. It’s this chalky material that is more like a milkshake, but it packs a bit of a punch.”