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The Banana (Musa sapientum) is a fruit derived from two wild species: Musa balbisiana and Musa acuminata. "It originally grew, many thousands of years ago, in and around Malaysia... Over time, random mutations produced acuminata plants with seedless fruits. They were more edible than seed-filled fruits, so people tended to cultivate the female-sterile mutants, giving rise to domesticated subspecies... Balbisiana originated in India. That is where, many thousands of years ago, acuminata crossed with balbisiana to create natural hybrids. And that is how we got the plantain."[1]

"Of the nearly 80 million tons of bananas produced annually around the globe, less than 15 percent are exported to the United States, Europe and Japan. The rest are consumed locally. India and Brazil, the top two banana-producing countries, export almost none. Yet sub-Saharan Africa leaves both countries far behind in per capita consumption. A typical person in Uganda, Rwanda or Burundi consumes more than 550 pounds of bananas a year. They eat (and drink in beer and juice) a type known as east African highland bananas.In Uganda, the word for this banana is matooke. It is cooked and mashed in a traditional dish that is also called matooke. In its broadest definition, matooke means "food." If you held a feast in Uganda and did not serve bananas, the guests would say you had served no food."[1]

Plant Physiology

"BANANAS DO NOT GROW ON TREES. The plants that produce them are enormous herbs with non-woody "trunks" called pseudostems, which consistof the compacted bases of the plant's long, torpedo-shaped leaves. The banana plant is a photosynthetic fountain that spouts leaf whorls out of its top. After the whorls emerge, they unfurl, and the leaves droop downward like palm fronds. The last leaf uncurls to reveal the banana's true stem--a green, fibrous extrusion with a softball-size magenta bud at the end. As the stem lengthens, the bud weighs it down.Petal-like bracts surrounding the pendulous bud gradually drop away to reveal clusters of blossoms. Oblong fruits develop at the base of each blossom. The flower-bearing tips of the fruits curve toward the sun as they mature, producing the crescent shape that Germans sometimes call "the smile of nature."
"Each layer of fruits in the ascending spiral is called a hand. Individual bananas are called fingers. A full stem, or bunch, of bananascan have as many as 20 hands and hundreds of fingers (a bunch of Cavendish bananas typically produces six or seven hands and 150 to 200 fingers). A banana's growing cycle, from baby plant to harvest-ready fruit, is between 9 and 18 months. After bearing a single bunch of bananas, the mother stalk dies or is cut down, soon to be replaced by one or more "daughters," which sprout as suckers from the same underground rhizome that produced the mother. The suckers, or sprouting corms, are genetic clones of the parent plant."[1]


The banana may be the world's oldest cultivated crop. Human beings in Southeast Asia began to select and cultivate wild Musa varieties as many as 10,000 years ago. It may have taken a few thousand years for those early agriculturists, acting in tandem with nature's geneticdice, to produce sterile hybrids like the Cavendish and other sweet varieties still cultivated today. Incapable of reproducing sexually, these seedless wonders propagate vegetatively, by suckering. During the first or second millennium B.C., Arab traders carried banana suckers with them from Southeast Asia to the east coast of Africa, and Tomekpe says, "Swahili people exchanged planting material with Bantu people, who took the plantains into the central forest and westward across the continent."

"Spanish explorers carried bananas from Africa's west coast to Latin America. A 16th-century Spanish historian, Gonzalo Fernandez de Ovideo y Valdes, documented the plant's arrival in the New World...
"Bananas flourished in Africa for so long after they arrived from Southeast Asia that some parts of the African continent--the eastern region around what is now Uganda, and the western region bounded by the Congo basin--became secondary centers of genetic diversity."[1]

Cavendish Bananas and Black Sigatoka

"The $4 billion-a-year worldwide banana export trade is almost entirely based on vast plantations filled with genetically identical Cavendish clones. It is the supermarket banana's lack of genetic diversity that has put it at risk, perhaps even (as some scientists say) at risk of extinction. A similar situation with another crop, the potato,set the stage for the great Irish famine of the 1840s, after the high-yielding potato varieties favored by Irish farmers fell prey to an airborne fungus that turned whole fields of tubers black and rotten overnight. Today, similar pests are stalking the banana. Topping the list is a fungal disease called black sigatoka. "[1]

The name Black Sigatoka comes from the diseases origin, Indonesia's Sigatoka Valley. The disease is a windborne fungus. Once it infects a banana, "it attacks the leaves of banana plants, shutting down the plants' ability to photosynthesize."[1] Black Sigatoka has now spread throughout Asia, Africa, and Latin America. "Many kinds of bananas are susceptible to black sigatoka, but none more so than the Cavendish. Large-scale growers can keep it from devastating their harvests only by spraying fungicides from airplanes. This escalating chemical warfare is economically unsustainable, to say nothing of its toll on the natural environment or the health of field workers."[1] Chiquita environmental director Dave McGlaughlin, said that sigatoka control makes up 20 percent of the company's costs "and it's not getting better."

The Cavendish was adopted by commercial banana companies in the mid-20th century. Prior to that, the banana variety of choice was called the Gros Michel. The use of the Gros Michel by commercial banana exporters dates back to the very first large shipment of bananas brought to the U.S. by Lorenzo Dow Baker in the 1870s, beginning the international banana trade. He co-founded the United Fruit Company with the Boston Fruit Company in 1884. In the 1940's and 1950's, a soil pathogen called Panama disease wiped out the Gros Michel. The Cavendish did not taste as good as the Gros Michel and it was also more fragile, requiring new packing and shipping methods. The Cavendish has reigned dominant since that time, but has now succumbed to pests and diseases, much like its predecessor.[1]

Banana Breeding

The Catholic University of Leuven holds the world's largest collection of bananas - nearly 1,200 varieties.[1] Because Belgium does not grow any bananas, it is easy to quarantine varieties without any risk of introducing pests or disease to the wild or to farms. These include about 900 traditional cultivated species, 100 "improved varieties" or hybrids, and 180 wild relatives. The banana varieties come from 44 different countries.

Whereas the bananas in Belgium's collection reside in test tubes, the bananas in the world's largest field collection of bananas are full-grown trees. The collection, which includes over 400 varieties on six acres, is in Cameroon, at the African Research Center on Bananas and Plantains (CARBAP), overseen by director Kodjo Tomekpe.

Bananas in Uganda

Bananas are a staple food of 16 million people in central and western Uganda, "providing as much as a quarter of a person's daily intake of carbohydrates. The average adult gets through more than one kilogram of bananas every day, giving Uganda the highest per capita consumption rate of any country."[2] As of 2007, the nation produced over 11 million tonnes per year, more than 10 percent of the world's total, making it the second largest producing nation after India.

Green savory bananas used for cooking are known locally as "matooke" (which simply means "food," showing how important the banana is in the diet) and elsewhere as the East African highland banana. Matooke might be steamed, boiled, fried, roasted, mashed, and stewed. Another type of banana, called kayinga, is grown for juice. The juice might be consumed directly or fermented to make beer and/or distilled to make a spirit called waragi. Sweet bananas like those eaten in the North America and Europe are also grown in Uganda.[2]

Uganda is home to over 100 banana varieties, of which 84 are endemic to the region. The fruit isn't the only important part of the plant for Ugandans. "The leaves are traditionally used to steam vegetables or as basins to hold water; dried--known as essanja--they are made into mats, among other things, while the fibres of the pseudostem are used to make rope, baskets and cloth."[2] Bananas are also deeply ingrained in the culture, playing a role in marriages, funerals, and other important events.

In the 1970's, the fabric of Ugandan society changed with the expulsion of the nation's Asians (Indians) in 1972 by Idi Amin. Until then, Indians - who ate rice as a staple - dominated the cities and Africans lived in rural areas. "As Ugandans moved into urban areas, the commercial banana industry grew to supply them with matooke. Although this provided a significant boost to the economy, it also opened the door to diseases such as black sigatoka and pests such as the banana weevil." This is because when bananas are consumed at home, their peels are left to rot under the banana trees, fertilizing the soil. But then the bananas - and their peels - went to the cities. "'Today, the peel from commercially grown bananas is no longer returned to the farms, and as most farmers don't regularly apply any other kind of fertiliser, the soil quality has declined. This has left the plants less able to withstand attack from these pathogens.'"[2]

GE Banana in Uganda

"Uganda which produces nine million tonnes of banana annually has for long been the world's second largest producer of banana. The crop is a staple food and cash crop for many communities especially in the central and western parts of the country."[3] The country suffers from declining yields, in part due to pests and disease, but also due to low soil fertility, since bananas are a heavy feeder on soil nutrients. Improving soil fertility will also help deal with the pest and disease problems, because healthy plants are less susceptible to such problems. Additionally, Black Sigatoka "mainly affects Cavendish" bananas in Uganda, "which are not as widely cultivated as other types of bananas."[4] Therefore, producers can reduce problems with the fungus by switching to other banana varieties with more resistance. (It's likely that the cavendish variety are for export, and exports account for less than 10 percent of bananas grown in Uganda.[5])

The GE banana was created by Geoffrey Arinaitwe, a Ugandan scientist based in Belgium.[6] Uganda's National Agricultural Research Organisation (NARO) opened a new research laboratory in 2003 to work on the GE banana.[7] The nation imported GE bananas in 2007 and began field trials of GE bananas that year.[8][9] At the time, the project was expected to produce results in 5-10 years.[10]"

Banana Pests and Diseases

Banana Xanthomonus Wilt (BXW)

Banana Xanthomonus Wilt (BXW) appeared in Uganda in 2001. Unlike Black Sigatoka and the Banana Weevil, which reduce yields over a number of years, BXW "destroys all of the fruit on up to 90 per cent of plants and can do so within a matter of weeks."[2] The disease was initially confined to two districts of Uganda, but began to spread in 2003. "In a desperate attempt to control it, the Ministry of Agriculture sent out extension workers to destroy infected plantations and set up quarantine zones. But the disease evaded their best efforts. By October the next year, it had reached 12 districts and there were reports of outbreaks in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Rwanda and Tanzania."[2] By May 2005, it had reached 31 of Uganda's 56 districts.

According to an account from 2007:[2]

"When I heard last year that BXW had finally reached the southwest,I feared the worst. But arriving in Kampala in September, I was surprised to find that it appeared to be business as usual.
"At the INIBAP headquarters, Karamura told me that scientists at the Kawanda Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) had made an important discovery. "We realised that bees played an important part in propagating the bacterium as they travelled from plant to plant collecting nectar from the male flower bud," he says. "This helped to explain why the disease was so rife in central areas, where the sugary kayinja predominated."
"In the southwest, however, the disease caused less damage, partly because the matooke varieties grown there contain less sugar, and partly because it's common practice to remove the male bud at an early stage of development because it improves the size of the bunch. Here, the bacterium was spread when farmers and traders used infected tools to cut their plants.
"BXW has now been found in 35 districts. But in the southwest, it's pretty much under control...
"However, central districts continue to be a problem. Even though agricultural researchers have shown that burying infected plants and removing the male flower buds of healthy plants can eradicate the bacterium from a plantation, getting the message across is proving a challenge. "The problem is socioeconomic," says Karamura. "Traditionally,farmers have been able to leave kayinja to grow almost wild, with no kind of management. So they have little time to implement the necessary measures."
"At present, INIBAP and scientists at KARI are developing farmer field schools through which they can teach farmers about the benefits of investing more time in proper management. "We have a farm in Luwero [central Uganda] that is almost free of disease because the farmer there does everything we tell him," says Karamura. "He has benefitted a lot because he is the only one in his area who is now selling waragi and his price has increased almost 200 per cent. We hope that by using him as an example, we can encourage other farmers to adopt similar practices."
"However, better management won't be enough in the long term, says Karamura. "Some farms are owned by children whose parents have died or by widows or absentee farmers who won't take the necessary measures. These will remain as pockets from which the disease will continue to spread. If we want to eradicate this disease, we may have to look at developing new varieties of bananas that are resistant to BXW."

Non-GMO Farming Practices To Solve Banana Problems

A Ugandan newspaper advised farmers how to improve banana production without GMOs.[11] Some simple strategies can help deal with the same problems the GE banana is intended to address.

For banana weevils, farmers are advised to put manure at the base of banana plants. "After cultivation, the pseudostem should be completely cut down and the sheath leaves disengaged before they are arranged in the banana plantation for easy drying."

For nematodes, "replenishing soil fertility through mulching with organic waste could suppress nematode damage by stimulating and improving root growth. Alternatively, before planting the banana suckers, they should be treated in water for between 24 and 48 hours. This will suffocate the nematodes and weevils and ensure that a farmer plants disease- and pest-free suckers."

For Banana Wilt Disease, immediately cut the affected plant and bury it in a hole.

"Black Sigatoka, also known as black leaf streak, is a fungal banana disease that starts as small yellow dots on the underside of the banana leaf which eventually become black and leads to drying of the leaf. The disease the spreads quickly to other leaves... to reduce the effect of Black Sigatoka, all affected leaves must be removed from the plant to reduce fungal spread and impact. Then the cut leaves should be placed upside down to further reduce spread of fungi spores by wind."

However, "apart from pests and diseases,... banana yields are declining due to reduced soil fertility, since banana are heavy feeders and require fertile soils in order to flourish... many farmers have grown bananas on the same piece of land for a long time without replenishing the soil fertility of their lands, thus leading to poor yields. Many farmers don't mulch their soil, apply organic manure or control soil erosion, which would have helped the soil to maintain its fertility." Simple techniques like mulching, applying manure, and pruning will help with banana productivity as well as diseases.

Articles and resources

Related SourceWatch articles


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 1.7 1.8 Craig Canine, "Building a better banana: it is the world's No. 1 fruit, with millions of people dependent on it to stay alive. Now diseases threaten many varieties, prompting a search for new hybrids of "the smile of nature"." Smithsonian, Pg. 96(9) Vol. 36 No. 7 ISSN: 0037-7333, October 1, 2005.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 Charlie Furniss, "Battling the banana plague: in Uganda, the average adult gets through a kilo of bananas a day--providing as much as a quarter of their daily carbohydrate intake. So when a virulent disease started working its way through the country's banana plantations, the nation held its breath," Geographical, Pg. 60(5) Vol. 79 No. 2 ISSN: 0016-741X, February 1, 2007.
  3. Fred Muzaale, "Proper Farming Practices Will Check Low Yields," The Monitor (Kampala), June 29, 2011.
  4. East Africa; Modified Banana Resistant to Fungus Shows Promise, Africa News, April 20, 2011.
  5. "East Africa; Banana Blight Puts Livelihoods at Risk," Africa News, June 17, 2009.
  6. Africa News, "Uganda; Country to Introduce Genetically Engineered Banana," February 20, 2007.
  7. Africa News, "Africa; Continent Warms Up to Biotechnology," November 14, 2007.
  8. Africa News, "Uganda; Nation Starts 'Historic' Trials On GM Staple Crops," October 5, 2010.
  9. "Uganda last week imported transgenic sweet banana plants resistant to pests and disease from Belgium for field trials; INTERNATIONAL BRIEFS," Food Chemical News, SECTION: Pg. 22(1) Vol. 49 No. 15 ISSN: 0015-6337, May 28, 2007.
  10. Africa News, "Uganda; Researchers Put GM Sweet Banana on Trial in Uganda This Month," May 15, 2007.
  11. Fred Muzaale, "Proper Farming Practices Will Check Low Yields," The Monitor (Kampala), June 29, 2011.

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