30 January 2003, Rome, Italy -- Responding to recent media reports that bananas may be extinct within 10 years, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) urged producers to promote greater genetic diversity in commercial bananas.

FAO pointed out that small-scale farmers around the world grow a wide range of bananas that are not threatened by the disease currently attacking bananas sold mostly in Europe and North America. The Cavendish banana, found mostly on western supermarket shelves, has been under attack in some Asian countries by a new strain of Fusarium wilt, also known as "Panama disease."
"What is happening is the inevitable consequence of growing one genotype on a large scale," said Eric Kueneman, Chief of FAO's Crop and Grassland Service. The Cavendish banana is a "dessert type" banana that is cultivated mostly by the large-scale banana companies for international trade. The Cavendish banana is important in world trade, but accounts for only 10 percent of bananas produced and consumed globally, according to FAO. 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, FAO said.

So far the problem has only been seen in Southeast Asia. However, Mahmoud Solh, Director of FAO's Plant Production and Protection Division, warned: "The consequences of the problem will be more dramatic if this phenomenon reaches Latin America and the Caribbean, where banana is a major plantation crop and a source of employment and income for a large section of the population."

Fortunately, small-scale farmers around the world have maintained a broad genetic pool which can be used for future banana crop improvement. Banana is essentially a clonal crop with many sterile species, which makes progress through conventional breeding slow and difficult. Because of this, new breeding methods and tools, including biotechnology, will be helpful to develop resistant bananas for cultivation. This does not necessarily mean the use of transgenics, FAO said.

FAO called for:
  • development of more diversity in the banana, especially for export bananas.

  • promoting awareness of the inevitable consequences of a narrow genetic base in crops and the need for a broader genetic base for commercial bananas.

  • strengthening plant breeding programmes in developing countries for banana and other basic staple crops.

In the past, FAO has supported banana improvement through mutation breeding with the joint FAO and International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Division in Vienna. However, scarce resources have slowed this effort. Since more than 50 percent of the banana germplasm (land races) are sterile, biotechnology and mutation breeding are important tools that can improve banana varieties without the threat of genetic drift, said FAO.

John Riddle
Information Officer, FAO
+(39) 06 5705 3259