Banana, spread from India by Alexander the Great, threatened on home turf – UN

Wild bananas in India

3 May 2006 – More than 3,300 years after Alexander the Great ate a banana in India, liked it and introduced it to the wider world, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) voiced concern today at the shrinking number of wild bananas in their original home, with the consequent loss of gene sources needed to combat pests and disease in the fruit.

It called for a systematic exploration of the wild bananas’ remaining forest habitats in India’s remotest regions and the jungles of Southeast Asia to catalogue surviving species as well as conservation efforts to offset loss of the species’ natural habitat and research on expanding the use of wild bananas in breeding programmes.

India is the world’s biggest banana grower, with an annual production of 16.8 million tonnes, or over 20 percent of total world output of 72.6 million tonnes in 2005 of the world’s most exported fruit and fourth most important food commodity after rice, wheat and maize in terms of production value.

But overexploitation and the loss of forests as a result of encroachment and logging, slash-and-burn cultivation and urbanization are causing a rapid loss of wild banana species that have existed in India for thousands of years. Among them are the ancestors of the Cavendish variety, the large, pulpy dessert banana which currently accounts for virtually all of world trade, amounting to nearly 20 million tonnes a year.

“The Indian subcontinent has made an enormous contribution to the global genetic base of bananas,” FAO Agricultural Officer NeBambi Lutaladio said. “But due to ecosystem destruction, it is probable that many valuable gene sources have now been lost. That could cause serious problems because bananas, particularly commercial varieties, have a narrow genetic pool and are highly vulnerable to pests and diseases.”

In the 1950s, the then dominant commercial banana, Gros Michel, was destroyed by Panama disease. Cavendish, which resisted the disease, was introduced then. But Mr. Lutaladio pointed out that small-scale farmers around the world grow a wide range of bananas that are not threatened by diseases currently threatening commercial bananas.

It was Alexander’s delectable dessert in 327 B.C. during his invasion of India that led to the fruit’s widespread migration. From India it travelled to the Middle East, where it acquired its current name from the Arabic banan, or finger, and from there Arab traders took it to Africa, where the Portuguese transported it to the Caribbean and Latin America.

India’s lost bananas include a variety which conferred genetic resistance to the dreaded black Sigatoka fungus disease that devastated plantations in the Amazon and elsewhere. Only one clone of the species, whose scientific name is Musa Acuminata spp Burmannicoides, remains at the Indian Botanic Gardens in Calcutta.

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