Wageningen is working on a better banana (and it is necessary)

It’s the first tropical day of the year, about thirty degrees. It is at least five degrees warmer in the greenhouse on the former barracks grounds in Ede. And much more humid than outside. After a few minutes, sweat will drip down your back.

Here, tropical conditions are simulated so that the banana plants that grow here can grow to the roof. At least the Gros Michel, a breed that can grow up to six metres. The Cavendish that grows here does not get much further than three meters. It started as a ‘joke’, says Gert Kema (64), professor of plant pathology at Wageningen University. The university celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2018. Kema thought it would be a good time to show the outside world the research he had been working on for eight years. To give the small plants from Wageningen’s research greenhouses space, so that there was also something to harvest. Dutch bananas. Dutch bananas.

A regional product, one might say. And therefore also interesting for Boerenhart – now Neder Groep – a company that brings local food from farmer to citizen. Kema, a scientist with commercial sensors, saw possibilities. Down runs the cashier. Neder makes beer from the bananas, meat substitutes from the peel (pulled peel) and lingerie from the plant fibres. And Kema can draw attention to its research in the greenhouse. Because the serious side of this ‘joke’ is: the banana goes bad.

Gert Kema (1957) is a fast talker. The fungi and diseases – Fusarium oxysporum, Black Sigatoka, Panama, Race 1 and Tropical race 4 – fly around you, the banana has a history that makes you dizzy. It started with the Gros Michel, once the best-selling banana in the world until it was hit by the devastating Panama disease in the middle of the last century. More precisely: Race 1 (R1), a group of fungi that penetrate the plant’s roots from the soil and colonize the vascular system. The plant will then die irrevocably. And that while Gros Michel was also plagued by the Black Sigotaka fungus.

Photo Dieuwertje Bravenboer

A new race was found, Cavendish, which proved resistant to R1. And against Sigatoka they could spray. But before the end of the century, a new strain of Fusarium, Tropical Race 4, appeared with the same devastating effect. Not only the Cavendish, but also small, local breeds were dying. “An absolute killer.” It survives in weeds, stays in the ground and as soon as a banana comes: bam! “I was once on a plantation where there had been no bananas for ten years. Then they shut down the Gros Michel. Within nine months these plants were dead.”

TR4 has now reached all continents. “Now that it has appeared in Mozambique, it is only a matter of time before it reaches other African countries. It threatens food security, especially in countries where bananas are a staple food.”

clone

Just when we get thirsty, the founder of Neder, Pieter Vink, enters the greenhouse with ice-cold banana beer from the first harvest. Brewed by Amsterdam brewer Kleiburg. Fresh, with a scent of yellow fruit. “If you stand outside, you can smell the banana in the beer even better.”

Kema spent a long time researching wheat fungi. In that world, he says, new varieties are constantly being developed. To increase yields, but also to provide farmers with resistant varieties if diseases and pests take out an older variety. But with bananas, even though plantations around the world are threatened, there are hardly any breeding programs. “For wheat, we know about 1,200 genes that are related to disease resistance. With bananas, they fit on half an A4 sheet.” Unique, says Kema. Compare that to the enormous variety in tomatoes or peppers. While a banana in pretty much any supermarket around the world – big or small, from Chiquita, Dole or any house brand – is always a Cavendish. Also great for a crop that makes so much money.

That can be explained, says Kema. Bananas are all clones. The offspring is genetically exactly the same as the parent plant. “The fact that you cannot produce and cross seeds is a huge obstacle to breeding. We have to start with the basics.”

Photo Dieuwertje Bravenboer

Kema sees more perspective in recent years. A strong push for the research was the moment in 2010 when his research group developed a PCR test which makes it possible to detect fungi much faster. Since 2017, a start-up in the UK has been working on resistance with genetic modification. Kema uses modern techniques in its search for resistant genes, but still based on classical breeding. According to him, this is the best method for genetic diversity. But as long as there are no new commercial varieties, Cavendish can only survive in one way: with a lot of spraying.

Now there is real indignation in Kema’s voice. Because that is the biggest underlying problem with the Cavendish monoculture: plants that are increasingly sprayed, about sixty times a year, with pesticides, with all the additional damage to people and the environment. When you fly over Colombia, says Kema, you see forty, sixty, eighty thousand hectares of contiguous plantations with one and the same variety. “Then you think as a plant pathologist: what are you doing!” One infected plant and everything could be gone.

He wonders: “How is it possible that a whole sector still accepts this, that supermarkets accept it.” And the consumer? “He knows nothing. Because it simply cannot be explained.”

When asked what interest banana producers and supermarkets have in maintaining this monoculture, Kema laughs a little cynically at the sustainable promises made by the companies. “Innovation is expensive, new variants must be able to keep up with the existing logistics.” Fits e.g. in the same boxes or can be transported in the same way. “And in the end it’s all about the price: few products generate as much revenue for supermarkets as bananas. “Bananas must be at least twice as expensive, but they are still as cheap as they were ten years ago. Otherwise, customers go to a cheaper supermarket.”

Resistance

Photo Dieuwertje Bravenboer

There is a rustle and then: boom. At the back of the greenhouse, a Gros Michel topples with a lot of noise. Top heavy probably. The approximately one hundred plants are not here in the open country, as in the tropics, but in large cement tubs, on a substrate of coconut fibers, with an infusion of water and nutrients. “And to our amazement, they do a great job!” The advantages: no weeds, no fungi, no insects and bacterial diseases and no pesticides. Just enough water and nutrition, so no waste. “We are starting an experiment with coconut fiber in the Philippines to see what the costs and benefits are.”

Gert Kema has sometimes experienced resistance. A Dutch scientist involved in the banana world is surprising to say the least. While it concerns a general interest: racial diversity. You can’t do that without the big companies. “But I don’t work for the companies, I work for the world.”

His example is Simon Groot, the breeder, world famous because he helped millions of small farmers out of poverty with his seeds. Kema has been working with bananas for almost fifteen years, his retirement is approaching. Sometimes he feels he started too late. But not because his heart is more with bananas than with wheat. “When I started as a student, I asked to work with crops that really matter. This applies to wheat and bananas. 400 million people depend on it. There is still much to do.”

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