A field trial in Australia has shown that genetically modified banana trees can resist the deadly fungus that causes Panama disease, which has devastated banana crops in Asia, Africa, and Australia and is a major threat for banana growers in the Americas, the Science magazine reported.
The transgenic plants might reach some farmers in as few as 5 years, but it’s unclear whether consumers will bite, its website said, adding that the work may encourage plant breeders using traditional techniques to create resistant varieties.
Bananas, one of the world’s most popular fruits, are a staple for more than 400 million people and a huge export business. In the 1950s, a soil-dwelling fungus destroyed Latin American crops of the most popular variety at the time, Gros Michel; it was replaced by a resistant variety, Cavendish, which now makes up more than 40% of harvests worldwide.
In the 1990s, the Cavendish’s own nemesis surfaced in Southeast Asia: a related fungus called Fusarium wilt tropical race 4 (TR4), the Science said, adding that fungicides can’t control TR4; disinfecting boots and farm tools helps, but not enough.
According to the magazine, TR4 was detected in the Middle East in 2012 and appeared in Mozambique a year later. It has reached all banana-growing regions of China and was confirmed in Laos and Vietnam this year. Only the Americas have been spared so far.
“This is an extremely important crop with major problems,” the magazine quoted study co-author Gert Kema, a plant pathologist and banana breeder at Wageningen University & Research in the Netherlands, as saying.