Super Banana

Article excerpt

FOR 25 YEARS, scientists at one of Central America's most advanced crop research labs have been trying to breed a pesticide-free banana. It now appears they've finally succeeded--and just in time for the troubled banana industry.

In what some are calling nothing short of a revolution, the Honduran agriculture institute FHIA (Fundacion Hondurena de Investigacion Agricola) has developed the world's first banana genetically resistant to black sigatoka, a nasty fungus that causes bananas to ripen early, rendering the fruit useless for export.

The breakthrough is significant because, up until now, the only way to control sigatoka has been through aerial pesticide spraying. But in the last few years, the fungus has built up an immunity to chemicals, requiring growers to spray more frequently and in much greater quantities. This is prohibitively expensive, not to mention the potential side effects to workers and consumers alike.

"Sigatoka is threatening bananas all around the world," said FHIA's director-general, Adolfo Martinez. "When the disease first appeared, they used to fumigate 10 or 15 times a year. Now they're up to 40 times a year. When growers see that this variety doesn't require pesticides, it'll be very attractive to them."

Phil Rowe, leader of FHIA's plantain and banana program, said companies are spending 600 dollars per hectare--around 30 cents per 40-pound box--just to control sigatoka. With current prices at around $5.20 dollars a box (the industry needs $7.25 dollars a box to break even), that can seriously cut into profit margins.

"When the breeding program was started in 1958 (by United Fruit), the idea was to develop a banana for export. Then our objective switched to food security, for small farmers through Latin America who were loosing their crops to disease," Rowe said. "All other crops are genetically protected. …