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 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