If we are to believe the news stories making the rounds of the media, the export banana is a metaphorical heartbeat away from extinction. It shouldn’t come as a surprise then that a blogger saw a parallel between the Heartbleed security bug and Cavendish bananas.
Last week, I participated in a discussion on what Fair Trade means for bananas. The meeting was organized by the worker-owned co-operative Equal Exchange and held at the Tufts School of Nutrition in downtown Boston, USA. The event started with a screening of Bananaland, Blood, Bullets and Poison. The movie set the scene and provided plenty of food for thought, even though it’s a bit far-fetched to attribute all the social problems and the violent history of Colombia to the banana industry alone. Nevertheless, it is clear that the banana has a troubled history, and in spite of efforts to address some issues, many remain.
Last December I attended a MusaNet workshop on best practices for Musa germplasm collection and data management held at CIRAD’s field collection on the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe. The traditional group photo hints at the diversity of both the experts looking after the world’s bananas and of the bananas themselves. The setting was perfect for discussing the pièce de résistance of the workshop: the Taxonomic Reference Collection (TRC).
Ten years ago the export banana was given until 2013 before being wiped out by Tropical Race 4 (TR4), the particularly virulent Fusarium strain that has been cutting a swath through Southeast Asia’s commercial plantations of Cavendish bananas. 2013 will not go down in history as the year the iconic banana disappeared from supermarket shelves, but it will be remembered nonetheless; as the year the TR4 fungus was first reported in Africa. The news that TR4 had been confirmed in a Cavendish plantation of northern Mozambique came on the heels of the revelation that the fungus has been in Jordan since 2006. It later transpired that TR4 might also have been in Mozambique for a while, as much as two to three years, according to a news piece in the journal Nature.
The Global Musa Genomics Consortium was created in 2001 to bring together the expertise of specialists applying genomics tools to the banana. For the first ten years, members of the Consortium steadily built genomic resources and worked to get the banana genome sequenced. The long-awaited sequence was about to be released when Dr Yasmina Jaufeerally-Fakim, now the dean of Mauritius University’s Faculty of Agriculture, sent a message to the mailing list. As a member, she thought that the Consortium was “a great initiative for getting all researchers on board and for stimulating exchange of information”. She felt, however, that many of the researchers in the South were not actively participating in or benefiting from what was going on and that the Consortium could do more “to get scientists in the South more involved in Musa genomics and the potential applications for improvement”.
The recent publication by Belgian and Malaysian scientists of a draft Musa balbisiana genome sequence in BMC Genomics went largely unnoticed, at least compared to the media attention that surrounded last year’s publication of the Musa acuminata genome sequence. The media may have a limited appetite for banana genomics but not Musa scientists. They knew from the beginning that the so-called A genome was not the whole story. No sooner had its sequence been released that French and Chinese scientists were discussing joining forces to produce a reference sequence for the edible banana’s other founding genome, the B genome donated by Musa balbisiana, which is often associated with tolerance to abiotic stresses. It looks as if they have been beaten to the finish line, but the fact is that the two scientific teams were pursuing different strategies.
The first issue of Musarama (a discontinued INIBAP newsletter not to be confused with ProMusa’s image bank) compared looking for articles on bananas in books of abstracts to gold panning. Finding nuggets of information became easier with the publication of bibliographies on bananas, such as the ones inserted into Musarama starting in 1988. Three years later, the Musalit database was set up but these were still early days for the Internet. Musarama continued to be the only outlet for bibliographical records until Musalit joined the web in 1998. From that point on its search interface remained more or less the same even as online searches were becoming increasingly powerful. But who has the time and patience to sift through the 194,000 hits of a Google Scholar search on the word bananas to find the valid ones, let alone the relevant ones?
A number of news outlets picked up the press release sent by Wiley, Yellow peril: Are banana farms contaminating Costa Rica's crocs?. The question mark in the title must be rhetorical. The press release leaves little doubt that readers are expected to agree with the conclusion of a study calling for banana plantations in Costa Rica to be better regulated because caimans from the Tortuguero area on the Atlantic coast “had been exposed to pesticides from upstream banana plantations”. Sure enough, all the news pieces I saw reported the story uncritically. The Guardian went as far as saying that the study had “established that run-off from banana plantations is harming the caimans that glide stealthily through Costa Rica’s conserved waters.“
Latest blog posts
The views, opinions and positions expressed on this blog are those of the authors alone.