Tag Archives: banana

Ethiopian ‘false bananas’ could be the new supercrop we’ve been waiting for against climate change

Bananas versus enset. Credit: RBG KEW.

Enset is a very close relative of the banana that’s grown and consumed in some parts of Ethiopia. Outside the Horn of Africa, especially in the West, virtually no one has heard of this crop, which locals have been using for centuries to make porridge and bread. Pay attention though: enset could become a new staple across the world. Scientists claim that enset is highly resilient to climate change and could help feed more than 100 million people, boosting food security in regions where conventional crops are threatened by rising temperatures and extreme weather.

The tree against hunger

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, global temperature is expected to reach or exceed 1.5°C of heating, averaged over the next 20 years. As temperatures increase, crop yields for the world’s most essential crops, which provide over 66% of the calories people across the globe consume, are expected to decrease. Maize yields, for instance, could plummet by 24% as early as 2030 under a high greenhouse gas emissions scenario.

Climate change disproportionately affects sub-Saharan African countries because their economies are highly dependent on rain-fed agriculture. It is therefore likely that the agriculture sector, which provides essential food for human consumption and feed for livestock, will undergo an important transformation in order to withstand the impacts of climate change and protect the livelihoods of farmers. Such transformation may involve introducing new crops that are currently not being rotated — and this is where enset may come in.

A farm in the southern Ethiopian highlands. Credit: Richard Buggs, RBG Kew.

Enset (Ensete ventricosum) is a perennial crop that fruits only once in its 10-year-long life cycle. It is known as the Ethiopian banana, Abyssinian banana, or false banana due to its morphological resemblance with the banana. The crop, which was domesticated some 8,000 years ago, is widely cultivated in the south and southwestern parts of Ethiopia, representing a traditional staple for about 20 million people. A multipurpose crop, enset is also utilized to feed animals, make clothes and mats from its fibers, and build dwellings.

However, unlike sweet bananas, which are widely farmed for their fruits, people in Ethiopia disregard the enset fruit and use its starchy stems and roots instead, from which they make porridge and bread.

There are a number of reasons why enset may boost food security. It grows over a relatively wide range of conditions, is somewhat drought-tolerant, and can be harvested at any time of the year, over several years. It provides an important dietary starch source, as well as fibers, medicines, animal fodder, roofing, and packaging. The crop also stabilizes soils and microclimates. These attractive qualities have earned it the nickname the ‘tree against hunger’.

Although enset is a hugely underrated food crop, not much research regarding its potential to feed a wider population has been conducted until recently. Dr. James Borrell, of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew has run agricultural surveys and modeling work to investigate what the potential range of enset could look like over the next four decades, and the findings are very encouraging.

The researchers found that the crop could feed at least 100 million people in the coming decades, boosting food security not just in Ethiopia but other vulnerable African countries, such as Kenya, Uganda, and Rwanda. Writing in the journal Environmental Research Letters, the authors believe enset could supplement our diets and offset expected yield losses of rice, wheat, and maize due to climate change.

“We need to diversify the plants we use globally as a species because all our eggs are in a very small basket at the moment,” said Dr. Borrell.

Dutch researchers grow bananas without soil to protect them from disease

A notorious fungus threatens bananas worldwide — and these Dutch researchers might just have the solution.

Image in public domain.

Banana history changed dramatically in the 1950s. The Gros Michel (or Big Mike) banana cultivar was by far the most popular in the world. But a fungal disease called the Panama disease spelled its demise. In 1965, the Gros Michel was officially declared extinct, and the world moved on to a different type of banana: the Cavendish. Over half of all the bananas you see on the market are Cavendish — but now, this variety is also threatened, again from a fungus.

For years, global banana production (and in particular, the Cavendish) have been in danger. They call it the Tropical Race 4 strain of Panama disease — though the name is less important. What is important is that after more than 50 years, the banana industry is again undergoing a crisis. Pushed by this disease (and another, equally threatening one called the “Black Sigatoka”), the future of bananas as we know them is uncertain.

But researchers from the University of Wagenigen have an idea.

“Global banana production is under critical attack by widespread fungal diseases,” researchers write in a press release. “There are two major causes: Panama disease and Black Sigatoka. This is a big problem, because bananas are a staple food for more than 400 million people in the tropics. They are the fourth most consumed food crop, the most consumed non-cereal staple food, and the most consumed fruit in the world.”

“The livelihoods of millions of people are at stake due to the Panama disease, caused by the Fusarium fungus, which wipes out banana plantations, contaminates soils for decades and cannot be suppressed. It is currently threatening banana production throughout South-East Asia.”

The pathogen is transmitted through soils, so instead of trying to limit it through pesticides or other substances, they thought outside of the box and completely removed all the soil. Instead, they grew bananas in coco peat and rock wool.

While this is only a test, the results have been quite promising. While the environment is more expensive to set up, it reduces the amount of nutrients lost through leakage and also allows plant growers to tailor the mixture for a number of different species. Of course, the biggest advantage is that it prevents the spread of disease.

“The Dutch banana also does not need disease control, which makes cultivation more sustainable than in traditional production areas,” said Gert Kema, a professor of tropical plant pathology and leader of the project.

Already, several companies (including Swiss-owned banana producer and distributor Chiquita) are looking into expanding the project. A larger follow-up trial is already planned on a plantation in the Philippines.

 

Korean supermarket wins at selling bananas

Seriously, we need more of this.

Image credits: E-Mart.

Bananas are fickle things. We’ve all been through it — you buy bananas for the whole week, and either they’re not ripe right away, or they are ripe, but they spoil before you get a chance to eat them all. It seemed to be one of those things that are just unavoidable — a minor inconvenient associated with modern life. But not in Korea.

As Twitter user and blogger @AskAKorean pointed out (via Daum), Korean grocery-store chain E-Mart has a solution for this problem: they sell bananas in a pack of five, with bananas in various stages of ripeness. So on one end, you have the ripe, perfect banana that you can eat right after you buy it, and on the other end, a greener banana that will only be ripe a few days after purchase. They call it “haru hana banana” or the “one-a-day banana.”

The idea that you can buy a pack of bananas for the whole week is both creative and useful. A pack sells for 2980 KRW, or about US $2.70, which is not the cheapest, but is reasonably acceptable, especially since it ensures that the bananas won’t turn brown the day after you buy them. The only big problem I see is the relatively large amount of non-recyclable plastic involved in the packaging — hopefully, E-Mart will also address that soon.

It’s not the only campaign E-Mart has started to make fruits more attractive. Recently, they started selling coconuts with a special straw, strong enough to pierce through the coconut’s tough outer shell and make it easier to drink from it. They also started selling watermelons with a package with handles, to make it easier to carry and eat them.

Unfortunately, the package is only available in Korea, but hopefully, other sellers will pick up on this idea. Now, all we need is a similar solution for the even more delicate avocado.

High-potassium foods like bananas and avocados can stave off strokes and heart attacks, new study finds

Regularly eating bananas and avocados can do wonders for your heart and arteries, scientists say.

Other high-potassium foods include prunes, white beans and spinach.

Pathogenic vascular calcification, also known as hardening of the arteries, is something which affects millions of people worldwide — especially once you get past a certain age. Researchers from the University of Alabama at Birmingham have studied possible ways to alleviate the condition, and found that it significantly correlates to dietary potassium. Basically, their animal studies suggest that if you don’t eat enough potassium, your arteries and aorta stiffen, which in time can lead to serious heart disease.

“The findings have important translational potential,” said Paul Sanders, M.D., professor of nephrology in the UAB Department of Medicine and a co-author, “since they demonstrate the benefit of adequate potassium supplementation on prevention of vascular calcification in atherosclerosis-prone mice, and the adverse effect of low potassium intake.”

In modern times, our diets have shifted massively, and not necessarily in a good way. Although food is more readily available and cheaper than at any point in history, most of the world is not properly nourished. Obesity is running rampant through the developing and the developed world, taking a toll on our health. Cardiovascular diseases are the number 1 cause of death globally: more people die annually from CVDs than from any other cause. Most of these deaths could be averted through behavioral changes, especially in diet and exercising. Simply put, we need to eat less of the bad stuff and more of the good stuff. According to this study, potassium-rich foods fall in the “good stuff” category.

Aortic calcification — comparison between low, medium, and high Potassium (K) consumption. Image credits: Yong Sun et al, 2017 / JCI Insight.

The UAB team led by Yabing Chen, Ph.D., UAB professor of pathology fed mice a diet varying in potassium. They found that especially in the case of mice who were eating high-fat foods, potassium levels significantly impacted vascular stiffness. Mice were split into three groups and given varying levels of dietary potassium — 0.3 percent, 0.7 percent and 2.1 percent weight/weight, respectively. They found that low-potassium mice had a significant increase in vascular calcification. In contrast, the mice fed a high-potassium diet had markedly inhibited vascular calcification.

“Reduced dietary potassium intake has been linked to the pathogenesis of a variety of human diseases, including atherosclerosis, diabetes, and chronic kidney disease,” the study said. “All of these disease share common vascular complications, such as vascular calcification.”

Of course, just because this happened on mice doesn’t mean it necessarily translates to humans. Researchers are planning more studies to solidify their findings, but they are quite confident that the same mechanism applies to us as well.

Journal Reference: Yong Sun et al. Dietary potassium regulates vascular calcification and arterial stiffness. Free access | 10.1172/jci.insight.94920

 

Teens: Forget the salt, eat more bananas

In the modern world, we tend to eat more salt than we should, and that can have several negative impacts on our body, including higher blood pressure – or so we thought. But a new study on teenage girls found that salt has no negative effect on blood pressure; bananas do.

“It may be that potassium is more of a determinant of blood pressure than sodium is,” said Lynn L. Moore, the study’s lead author and an associate professor of medicine at Boston University. “The kids who consumed the most potassium had much lower blood pressures by the end of adolescence. What we need to focus on is increasing potassium intake rather than focusing on restricting sodium intake.”

The study tracked the eating habits of 2,185 girls aged 9-10 for 10 years, and their findings were pretty surprising: salt intake had no effect on blood pressure but some girls who consumed up to 3,500 mg of sodium per day had lower blood pressure than those who consumed 2,500 mg daily. Of course, bananas are well known for their high potassium, although foods like avocados, sweet potatoes, yogurt and spinach have even more potassium.

The recommended daily intake of potassium is 4,700 mg per day, but few of us actually manage to even get close to that – that’s about 14 bananas or 3 kilograms (6.6 pounds) of yogurt. However, we tend to eat much more sodium than we should – most Americans consume about 3,400 mg of sodium a day according to data from the American Heart Association. This is more than twice as much as the recommended 1,500 mg / day guideline.

What does this all mean? Well, it doesn’t mean that salt is or isn’t bad for you in total, just that it doesn’t seem to do much for your blood pressure, while potassium seems to be good for your blood pressure, according to this study. Less fast food, more bananas and yogurt!

The findings were published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics.

Fungus threatens global banana production

During the harvest last year, many farmers from Jordan and Mozambique reported that their plants looked nothing like what they’ve been harvesting for decades, instead turning into something like this:

banana2

Scientists first discovered that this fungus was wreaking havoc in Southeast Asia in the early 1990s. Since then, the pathogen, known as the Tropical Race 4 strain of Panama disease, has slowly but steadily affected export crops throughout Asia. The fact that this fungus has reached Mozambique and Jordan and made its impact in Africa is extremely worrisome – especially as it’s getting closer and closer to South America, where 70% of the world’s $8.9-billion-a-year worth of exported bananas is grown. As a matter of fact, some researchers believe this strain may already be in South America – and the area is in no way prepared to deal with it.

Randy Ploetz, professor of plant pathology at University of Florida who discovered Tropical Race 4, explains:

“The story on the Mozambique situation was that workers brought over to establish the plantations—some of them were from Latin America,” he says. “And this is an insidious disease in that it can move… by soil-contaminated machinery, tools—that kind of thing.”

Meanwhile, big companies seem to downplay the impact and hazard that this fungus poses. Chiquita, the $548-million fruit giant with the world’s largest banana market share, is not worried:

”It’s certainly not an immediate threat to banana production in Latin America [where Chiquita’s crops are],” Ed Lloyd, spokesman for Chiquita, told the Charlotte Business Journal in late December, explaining that the company is using a “risk-mitigation program” to approach the potential spread.

But with today’s globalization and inter-country transports and shipments, it seems inevitable that the disease will also reach South America – be it sooner or later. The effects would be absolutely devastating – we know, because we’ve been through this before.

The Great Banana Plague

Well that’s not really a name, I sort of made this up, but here’s what I’m talking about. The Gros Michel banana was the type that was introduced to the American and European public. They quickly became very popular and became one of the go-to fruits. This type of banana is creamier, tastier, and overall, simply better to eat than the bananas most of us eat today – the Cavendish variety. The only reason the Cavendish banana displaced the Gros Michel was because of the “Panama virus” (Race 1) – a different, less virulent strain of the same fungus (it’s a fungus, not a virus, actually) that is now creeping in Africa. The tastier bananas were vulnerable to it, while the less tastier ones were more resistant.

Over the half-century it took to wipe out the Gros Michel, Race 1 caused at least $2.3 billion in damage (around $18.2 billion in today’s terms). But Race 4, which is what we’re dealing with now, is way more dangerous – and the overall banana production and export has also increased significantly. So why exactly is it so dangerous?

banana1

– it strikes from inside the plant. The farmers don’t get any notice – the first thing they notice is that the leaves start turning yellow. The fungus spreads from the roots through the vascular system, making it harder and harder for the plant to photosynthesize, rendering it unable to feed itself.

– nothing can get rid of it. This isn’t, by any means, the only banana disease out there. But at the moment, nothing that we have can drive it back; simply nothing! For that reason, many farmers call it the “HIV of bananas”.

– it’s stealthy and plays a long game. It can survive extensive periods of time, clinging not only to special equipment, but also to shoes, clothes, cars… you name it! All it takes is one clump of soil to spread Tropical Race 4. Also, Dead plants leave behind spores, allowing the fungus to lie dormant in the ground for decades in wait for new crops to blight. Basically, once a terrain has been touched by the plague, it’s never safe to grow bananas again on it – ever (or at least until we discover something that destroys the fungus).

We’ll see how this situation develops, but facing it sooner or later seems to be certain – and if big companies like Chiquita or Dole don’t start actively preparing themselves – we might be heading towards another Great Banana Plague. There, I’ve said it again.