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Inside the fight to save the bananas we know (and love)

January 23, 2016 at 1:18 PM EST
A deadly fungus, known as Panama disease, is decimating banana plantations around the world and threatens to wipe out the most common species, the Cavendish banana. Scientists in Honduras are working to create a resistant banana before the disease hits Latin America, where the majority of the fruit is grown. NewsHour's Mori Rothman reports.
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MORI ROTHMAN: In Northern Honduras, outside the city of San Pedro Sula, banana researcher Juan Aguilar and his staff are hard at work trying to develop a new variety of banana — one that’s resistant to the banana plant killing fungus “Tropical Race 4,” also known as “Panama disease.”

JUAN AGUILAR: For this disease, do not exist any fungicide, no chemical.

MORI ROTHMAN: The disease is decimating banana plantations around the world.

From Australia to Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. In a study published in the journal “PLOS Pathogens,” researchers said: “Clearly, the current expansion of the Panama disease epidemic is particularly destructive….”

Luckily for these farmers, the disease has not been detected in Latin America, which accounts for 70 percent of the world’s banana supply.  Farmers here grow the Cavendish banana — the most widely consumed banana in the United States and around the world.

Aguilar, the chief banana breeder at the Honduran foundation for agricultural research, worries that Honduran farm workers who go overseas to work could bring the fungus back even through something as simple as the dirt on their shoes.

JUAN AGUILAR: One time you have the fungus in the soil, you don’t avoid it.

MORI ROTHMAN: 60 years ago, a similar fungus wiped out what was then the most popular banana in the world — the Gros Michelknown for its sweet taste and creamy texture.  The Cavendish essentially replaced it.

But finding a replacement for the Cavendish through cross breeding is tough because most Cavendish bananas are seedless – good for eating, bad for breeding.

MORI ROTHMAN: So how many seeds will you get out of this entire group of bananas?

JUAN AGUILAR: My estimation is from this one hundred bunches that we have here maybe we get ten seeds.

MORI ROTHMAN: Ten seeds from a hundred bunches?

JUAN AGUILAR: Yes, and this is a lot. And these ten seeds. And maybe two or three will develop in a plantlet who can go to the field.

MORI ROTHMAN: His workers pollinate each banana plant by hand, harvest thousands of bananas, and look to find a rare seed here and there.

JUAN AGUILAR: We have here all the bunches where we make crosses.

MORI ROTHMAN: Through cross breeding, Aguilar combines bananas favored by farmers– like the Cavendish, with plants that are resistant to Panama disease.

Aguilar cultivates thousands of bananas in search of the most disease resistant one. He numbers each new banana plant, and then sends his best samples to Australia, one place where the disease exists. There it is tested for resistance to the fungus.

Aguilar is in a race not only to find a resistant variety of the Cavendish, but also to help develop new varieties just in case the Cavendish can’t be saved.

MORI ROTHMAN: Tell me a little about what you need to make the perfect banana, the next banana that everybody wants to buy in a grocery store?

JUAN AGUILAR: Ok, we need a good banana for the farmers, we need a banana who is resistant to Black Sigatoka, to Panama Disease Tropical Race 4.  We need a banana that is useful for the buyers, who has a long shelf life, green life, to be transported from Honduras or any American Latin country to us and Europe.

MORI ROTHMAN: One of the possible replacements is the Sucrier banana, a smaller sweeter cousin to the Cavendish. Aguilar gave me a taste of a Panama disease resistant prototype he created.

JUAN AGUILAR: This is green. This is very sweet. It still is not ready to go. But it’s ok. This is one of the alternatives to produce. We are trying to develop very sweet, very sweet, dessert bananas.

MORI ROTHMAN: One problem — it tends to bruise during shipment.

Even if Aguilar finds a Panama disease resistant version of the Cavendish, he warns that the disease itself can evolve.

JUAN AGUILAR: If the fungus make his own improvement, we need to develop again a new resistant variety.

MORI ROTHMAN: So you’re always in a race against this changing disease.

JUAN AGUILAR: Yes for that reason it’s a cycling process.

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