Ba­nanas grown with­out soil for first time in ef­fort to curb deadly dis­ease

Univer­sity re­searchers team up with pro­ducer Chiq­uita as fun­gus threat­ens dom­i­nant va­ri­ety

The Star (St. Lucia) - Business Week - - FRONT PAGE - BY EMIKO TERAZONO IN LON­DON

The world’s first crop of ba­nanas grown with­out soil is due to be har­vested this week, part of an ef­fort to stem the spread of a deadly fun­gus that threat­ens the fu­ture of the fruit

The world’s first crop of ba­nanas grown with­out soil is due to be har­vested this week, part of an ef­fort to stem the spread of a deadly fun­gus that threat­ens the fu­ture of the fruit.

Sci­en­tists and re­searchers are try­ing to stop Panama dis­ease, a soil dwelling fun­gus that is dev­as­tat­ing plan­ta­tions around the world and threat­en­ing the Cavendish ba­nana, the va­ri­ety that ac­counts for 95 per cent of all ba­nanas sold in the $36bn in­dus­try.

“The core of our strat­egy is to di­ver­sify ba­nana pro­duc­tion,” said Gert Kema, a lead­ing ba­nana ex­pert and the head of trop­i­cal phy­topathol­ogy at Wa­genin­gen Univer­sity in the Nether­lands, which is work­ing with Chiq­uita Brands In­ter­na­tional, one of the big­gest ba­nana pro­duc­ers.

The fun­gus spreads through soil move­ment, typ­i­cally caused by work­ers and ma­chin­ery. Grow­ing ba­nanas in a green­house on nu­tri­ents and rock­wool, made from Basalt rock and chalk, will in­su­late the plants from dis­ease.

Prof Kema and his col­leagues at Wa­genin­gen are also work­ing on ba­nana breed­ing pro­grammes us­ing va­ri­eties of wild ba­nanas that are re­sis­tant to dis­ease.

Mean­while, Tropic Bio­sciences, an agritech start-up based in the UK, is look­ing to use new gene edit­ing tech­niques to de­velop a ba­nana re­sis­tant to Panama dis­ease. The Nor­wich-based com­pany raised $10m ear­lier this year in early-stage fund­ing from in­vestors to com­mer­cialise its new plant va­ri­eties.

The Cavendish mono­cul­ture is based on a sin­gle ge­netic clone, which means that it is vul­ner­a­ble to epi­demics. Be­fore the Cavendish be­came the dom­i­nant va­ri­ety, the Gros Michel ba­nana was the most widely eaten ba­nana. How­ever, this was wiped out in the 1950s by the first strain of Panama dis­ease.

Iden­ti­fied in Tai­wan as early as 1960, the TR4 strain of Panama dis­ease has spread through­out south-east Asia and Aus­tralia, reach­ing the shores of Mozam­bique as well as the Mid­dle East.

The con­cern is that it will reach Latin Amer­ica and wipe out the farms which pro­vide three-quar­ters of the world’s ba­nana ex­ports.

Re­searchers are look­ing for so­lu­tions to stop the dis­ease, but at present there is no ef­fec­tive treat­ment once it has in­fected a ba­nana plant. The only so­lu­tion avail­able is to try and pre­vent the trans­fer of in­fested soil, in­fected plants and con­tam­i­nated ma­te­ri­als to clean ar­eas.

The Cavendish mono­cul­ture is based on a sin­gle ge­netic clone, which means that it is vul­ner­a­ble to epi­demics

Cavendish ba­nanas, which are un­der threat from Panama dis­ease, ac­count for 95% of all ba­nanas sold © Alamy

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