The Govern­ment has de­clared the mango In­dia’s most im­por­tant fruit. But for­ti­fied ba­nanas could lead the war on mal­nu­tri­tion.

India Today - - LIFESTYLE - By Gay­a­tri Jayaraman

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.

SAU­RABH SINGH/ www. in­di­a­to­day­im­ages. com

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