Going GM bananas all over again (7/4/2004)

"Only GM can save the banana" is a story that first surfaced in 2001. It next did a comeback in 2003 and now it is doing the rounds all over again:

*Without a genetic fix, the banana may be history* http://www.truthabouttrade.org/article.asp?id=1597 by: David Ewing Duncan

Each time this story (re)emerges, it gets expertly debunked (see items below)... till the next time comes around!

And each time exactly the same scientist is quoted, Dr Emile Frison. Here are some of the headlines Frison has helped to generate:
Bananas are a Dying Breed
Banana blight?
Banana on a slippery slope to extinction
GE declared as last hope to save the banana
Yes - in 10 years we may have no bananas
Bananas could split for good
Defenceless banana 'will be extinct in 10 years'
Bye Bye Banana
Bananas; an endangered fruit

According to the GM lobby, the reporting of science is endangered by a gullible media fed on scare stories by pressure groups. We couldn't agree more.

The first 3 items below each shows Frison's claims to be pure hype, intended to tranfix us on the horns of a false dilemma. The final item shows there's no market for GM bananas anyway!

*Bananas 'can't disappear by 2013'
*Bananas about GM
*'Yes, we don't want GM bananas'

January 30, 2003
Agence France Presse [via agnet]

ROME - The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation was cited as denying on Thursday reports that commercial bananas are on the verge of extinction, but called on growers to promote greater genetic diversity to protect the fruit.

 Eric Kueneman, head of FAO's Crop and Grassland service, was quoted as saying, "What is happening is the inevitable consequence of growing one genotype on a large scale."

But FAO said small-scale farmers around the world grew a wide range of banana species not threatened by the disease currently attacking the Cavendish type sold mostly on the world's supermarket shelves.

"The Cavendish banana, mostly found on western supermarket shelves, is important in world trade, but accounts for only 10 percent of bananas produced and consumed globally," FAO said.

It said the vulnerability to disease of this single strain of banana was "not unexpected".

Bananas 'can't disappear by 2013'
The Nation, Thailand, Thursday, January 30, 2003

A warning by Belgian scientists about the extinction by 2013 of the world's most popular edible fruit, the banana, has bemused Thai experts on the fruit.

Though it is accepted that bananas are subject to natural threats, Benchamas Silayoi, from Kasetsart University's Faculty of Agriculture, said it was impossible that the plant species - which is a staple food of millions globally - would soon vanish from the Earth.

Benchamas said there was a world collection of the banana's germplasm in Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Belgium. The objective of the world's largest collection, which contains over 1,100 accessions, is to conserve the plant.

"Once the bananas planted on Earth are eradicated by any threat, at least the world has genetic materials from bananas in vitro that could be  placed on Earth," said one professor, who is an expert in the species.

Besides the huge collection in Belgium, there is an Asian banana collection kept in the Philippines.

Moreover, Thailand has its own collection at Kasetsart University's banana tissue culture lab.

A report of the International Network for the Improvement of Banana and Plantain (INIBP), recently presented in New Scientist Magazine, warned that the last common banana tree in the world would disappear within 10 years because of its "genetic decrepitude".

The report claimed that the banana, which is a sterile mutant plant species, cannot evolve to develop resistance to pests and diseases. The extinction of bananas in Cuba was mentioned as an example.

Veerachai na Nakhon, director of the Botanic Garden Organisation, agreed with the report that bananas have a tendency towards extinction, but not in 10 years.

"Not only bananas, all plant varieties take a long time to be wiped off the Earth. It takes longer than a decade for a common species to become a rare species, then endangered, before reaching the status of extinction," he said.

His comment was echoed by Benchamas, who said that pests and diseases could not make the plant extinct in such a short period of time. "Only big bombs can do that," she said.

Benchamas and Veerachai also took issue with the INIBP's contention that genetically modified bananas were the only way to conserve the plant species.

"It is too risky to modify the genes of edible fruit," said Veerachai.

Bananas about GM
David Jones ([email protected])
New Scientist, August 4, 2001  Letters

Contrary to the impression given by your story and editorial on the banana genome project (21 July, p 7 and p 3), genetic engineering is not the only option for improving "sterile" banana cultivars which have three sets of chromosomes (triploid) instead of two (diploid). Although triploid bananas don't breed well, if at all, they can be induced to produce seed if pollinated by hand. Honduras's agricultural research foundation has had the most successful conventional banana breeding programme to date. The Honduran Foundation of Agricultural Research has bred disease-resistant bananas that are now grown extensively in Cuba. One called Goldfinger is also grown in Australia, and others are on trial in Africa and elsewhere.

Conventional breeding can deliver the goods, especially when it comes to bananas favoured by developing countries. It is true that it may be impossible to alter traits in the familiar "Cavendish" banana with conventional breeding because of sterility problems. But it may be possible to breed a commercially acceptable disease-resistant export banana using a fertile dwarf variety of "Gros Michel", an earlier export dessert banana.

Many banana scientists, including me, believe that genetic engineering should complement rather than replace conventional breeding strategies. Let's not put all our eggs in one basket.

'Yes, we don't want GM bananas'
LIVING EARTH No 208 Oct-Dec 2001

Shoppers don't want GM bananas under any circumstances according to a new survey by Fyffes.  In the survey, 769 people were asked if they would buy GM bananas if they were ever on sale in Britain. A resounding 86 per cent said no. When asked if they would buy GM bananas if they were proved safe 82 per cent said no.

Even if GM bananas had been proved safe and would reduce the amount of chemicals used in farming 82 per cent still said they still would not buy them.  

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