MANGO PEOPLE OR BANANA REPUBLIC?
The Government has declared the mango India’s most important fruit. But fortified bananas could lead the war on malnutrition.
Sachin Tendulkar’s been on them publicly since 2008, M. S. Dhoni and Virat Kohli have just caught on, and every IPL ( Indian Premier League) match has the trio dipping into the stash between innings. Bananas, of course. Quick on energy, fibre- heavy and protein- rich, the average IPL player’s consumption of bananas is a mandatory two per day. That has made it an average consumption of three dozen a day per team this season.
Not that that has helped the poor fruit much. The average banana has four times the potassium of the average mango and double the dietary fibre. At 30 million tonnes, it constitutes 33 per cent of India’s annual fruit production, as opposed to the mango, which makes up 22.9 per cent. Yet, it remains the stepchild of fruits. The Union Ministry of Agriculture officially declared mango “India’s most important fruit” in April this year. An orgiastic Katrina Kaif might suggestively endorse the ‘ Aamsutra’ but it is unlikely that she would endorse a banana, though it is no less exotic, aphrodisiacal or tropical. So what can beat the bias?
The humble Indian banana has just begun the race for the big league. The Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council, in collaboration with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University, Coimbatore, Indian Institute of Horticultural Research, Bangalore, Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, Mumbai, and National Agrifood Biotechnology Institute, Mohali, has tied up with Queensland University of Technology, Australia, in a Rs 8- crore project to develop Vitamin A and iron- fortified bananas of the Grand Naine and Rasthale varieties. That has driven activist Vandana Shiva up the warpath with her sounding dire warnings in May of what ills genetic modification of the banana may bring. Never has the banana debate been more ripe.
How urgent is the need for banana rejuvenation? Of 360 existing varieties of banana in India, only 20 are grown commercially. Culling of forests has led to a decline in bats and bees, natural pollinators of the ba- nana. Four- five wild varieties like Manoranjithan, Ladan and Madhukar have been lost to extinction, and a further three including the Musa Ornata from the North- east and Nanjangud Rasabale recently endangered. “Deforestation, over- exploitation and globalisation are pushing farmers to focus on the Cavendish group for better income,” says senior scientist Ganesh Karunakaran, 39, working with the Central Horticultural Experiment Station at Chettalli in Coorg, which works to preserve 212 Indian banana varieties.
With a gourmet wave of heritage and organic food coming back in fashion, the normally neglected parts of the banana plant, the stem and the flower, are making a comeback on restaurant menus, like that of JW Marriott’s Lotus Café in Mumbai or cafes like Navdanya in Delhi.
In India, the banana has always done well as the common man’s fruit. It is cheap, widely available and aids the nation’s battle against malnutrition. National Research Centre for Banana), Trichy, Director M. M. Mustafa, 48, says success depends on public acceptance of the fortified banana. Wonder if Tendulkar would be up for another endorsement deal.