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When science goes bananas

When science goes bananas

Climate change, pests, and disease pose serious challenges to the future of the export of bananas.

6 minutes
02 October 2019

Bananas are among the most widely consumed fruits in the world. Moreover, banana cultivation is an essential source of income and employment for households around the globe. However, we soon might have to say goodbye to our trusty eleven o’clock snack, as climate change, pests, and disease pose serious challenges to the future of the export of bananas. Fortunately, researchers at KU Leuven and Bioversity International are working hard to safeguard the future of one of the world’s most well-loved fruits.

How Research at KU Leuven Prevents One of the World’s Most Well-Loved Fruits from Becoming Extinct

The banana – or, as it is known in scientific terms, Musa – has a history spanning over 8,000 years. Actually classified as berries, bananas are vital food resource for many. They are, in fact, one of the world's most consumed fruits, and extremely affordable to grow.

With their typical curvy shape, yellow colour, mild flavour and soft, starchy flesh, they are an often used ingredient in many cuisines around the world. Dessert bananas as we know represent a mere 15% of the world’s entire production, which is estimated to be around 140 mio tonnes per year. Because of that, bananas are a staple crop for millions of poor households in Asia, Africa and Latin America. The highlands of Eastern Africa record the highest consumption of bananas per person per day, i.e. up to 0.5 kg. In those regions, bananas that are not exported abroad are starchy at maturity, and their fruits are cooked, boiled or fried. In Belgium in contrast, we eat around 8 kg of bananas per person each year.

Bananencollectie rekken

Belgium, a genuine banana republic

Obviously, there is a lot more than meets the eye when it comes to the humble banana. Bananas, however, are facing an uncertain future. With the world’s population growing at an incredible rate, banana yields need to increase in order to keep up with demand. As banana plantations generally contain a single type of banana, they are quite vulnerable to global phenomena such as climate change, deforestation, drought, and pest and disease outbreaks.

Although this might come as a surprise, Belgium is actually home to the largest collection of banana varieties in the world. In fact, Belgian researchers have been looking into bananas ever since the early 20th century. Moreover, for over 35 years, KU Leuven's Laboratory of Tropical Crop Improvement at the Faculty of Bioscience Engineering has been home to the banana gene bank managed with Bioversity International, where cuttings of an impressive 1,536 edible and inedible types of banana have been conserved. That same lab is also a leading research centre about the banana, whose notoriety stretches far beyond the borders of Belgium.

Bananencollectie detail

Big banana business

The importance of the banana industry stretches beyond food production; bananas are also a crucial source of income. They are grown in 135 countries, and are the fourth most important crop after rice, wheat and maize in the tropics. Although the plants are primarily relied on for their fruit, bananas are also used to make fibre, flour, chips, vinegar, jam, jelly and wine – and you can even enjoy a banana beer in some African countries!

India is the world's largest producer of bananas. Latin America, too, depends on bananas as a primary economic resource. The region contains four of the top five producers of bananas for the export market, with Ecuador as the world’s largest exporter. Although the United States is the biggest consumer, Belgium takes the lead in Europe: our country is the world's second largest importer and exporter of bananas.

Here too, the gene bank plays an important role. One of its main goals is to preserve banana varieties for future generations, create disease-resistant plants and develop new varieties. In charge of the lab is Professor Rony Swennen, one of the world’s foremost authorities on bananas. He oversees the team that helps safeguard and use banana diversity for the sake of the millions of people who depend on it for both nutrition and their livelihoods.

Bananencollectie professor

Sub-zero bananas

At the lab, a myriad of tiny banana plants are kept in racks containing scores of test tubes. Interestingly, KU Leuven and Bioversity International researchers managed to develop an alternative way to preserve the entire banana collection for ages. Using liquid nitrogen at a temperature of minus 196°C, small pieces of each banana variety’s growing tips are frozen and kept. Even after hundreds of years, these samples can be unfrozen and regenerated into a new viable plant.

On a daily basis, the banana researchers gather digital information on each type, and publish newfound insights online. This way, the banana collection allows both academics and farmers across the world to gain greater insights into banana cultivation. After all, it is crucial to determine which type of banana plant is the best fit with a certain farmer in order for him/her to get the best harvests possible in his/her area. The lab’s findings can help farmers to grow crops within the limitations posed by their regions’ economic circumstances, as well as those posed by ecological constraints, i.e. which soil should be used to guarantee successful yields.

Bananencollectie kleur

Banana benefits

Clearly, the banana researchers at the lab are contributing to large-scale global issues by focusing on the minute little plants. Although this might make them feel pretty good about themselves, being around bananas all day might boost those feelings even more, as bananas boast a number of notable health benefits. For one, bananas may be considered mood enhancers because they help the body produce serotonin, the chemical that contributes to feelings of happiness.

Bananas help lower blood pressure as well, and maintain nerve and muscle function during sports activities due their high potassium content. In addition, the inside of a banana peel can help relieve itching, e.g. from a mosquito bite. Furthermore, certain banana varieties contain high levels of carotenoids, which can protect the eyes from disease. This means bananas could play a crucial role in the battle against Vitamin A shortage, which annually causes blindness among half a million children, and even leads to half of them dying.

Bananencollectie stekje

Global impact

To make a difference the world over, from Leuven cuttings are sent abroad to other universities, businesses, Ministries of Agriculture as well as individual farmers in need of bananas with specific characteristics. Yet, individuals or organisations taking samples from the gene bank may not patent them. Should the material ever be commercialised, then part of the profit must be returned to the farmers via the UN. All of this happens in close collaboration with Bioversity International, a global research-for-development organisation that focuses on the use and conservation of agrobiodiversity.

KU Leuven’s efforts in this field have not gone unnoticed by the rest of the world. Because of its global outreach, the gene bank is under the auspices of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), and has even been recognised as world heritage. We could say it actually belongs to all of mankind, and more specifically to the farmers who originally supplied the material, rather than a single academic institution.

So, the next time you sink your teeth into a delicious banana, you might want to spare a thought for the banana researchers at KU Leuven, and their continuous efforts to keep the world’s banana supplies healthy and abundant.

Support the project

KU Leuven bananas are conquering the world. Thanks to Prof. Swennen's project, Congolese farmers are also reaping the benefits of this research.