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Would Saving The Banana Give Genetically Modified Foods A Good Name?

The world is gaga over bananas.  Unfortunately, this unassuming, ubiquitous fruitbanana.jpeg is in extreme danger of going the way of the dodo – at last the variety that is shipped all over the world.  According to scientists, this fruit is about to become a scarce commodity due to a deadly, incurable fungus that is decimating banana crops all over the world.  

Popular Science writer Dan Koeppel, has written a book, "Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World," highlighting the fruit's storied and controversial past and future.  In an interview aired earlier this week on NPR’s Fresh Air, he talks about how Panama disease, a soil fungus impervious to fungicides, is killing off Cavendish bananas, the most popular variety of the fruit.  Interestingly, Canvendish bananas are supposed to be impervious to the fungus.  Yet, because the plant is sexless, it has become vulnerable.

While first-world countries have little to fear from a banana shortage – the fruit is popular but not critical – developing nations have a lot to lose.  The banana is a staple food for 400 million people living in Africa, Asia, South America and other continents.


Enter genetically modified foods.  Shunned and derided by many, these products are viewed as unnatural, bland and potentially dangerous.  However, genetics may be the banana’s last hope. According to a 2004 article published in the San Francisco Chronicle:

“In the 1950s, Panama disease struck and obliterated the Gros Michel, which was replaced by the Panama-disease-resistant Cavendish, the slightly less sweet banana that now appears on our grocery shelves.

Exporters are able to fend off pests by a heavy use of chemicals -- as many as 40 sprayings a year, more than any other crop -- which poor farmers cannot afford. Field hands working in Latin America suffer from high rates of leukemia and sterility from these pesticides.

[One] fix is to insert a gene from rice that works as a natural fungicide to fend off black sigatoka."

If a genetically modified banana were to help stave off the fruit’s demise (and improve working conditions for agri-laborers) would it improve the reputation of companies producing other foods that have been genetically tweaked?  Perhaps, but it may depend on whether the banana crisis becomes more pronounced.  If prices rise, as supplies dwindle people will be looking for a solution.  If it were widely advertised that a genetic fix saved the banana, it could help to change some minds about the safety and usefulness of “Frankenfoods.”

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