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India: World's No.1 banana grower?

By Suman Guha Mozumder in New York
May 04, 2006 16:32 IST
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More than three millenniums after King Alexander introduced banana to the world after having it in India, the United Nations has voiced concern at the shrinking number of wild bananas in their original home.

The depletion of wild bananas is leading to loss of gene sources needed to combat pests and disease in the fruit, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation said on Wednesday.

FAO has called for a systematic exploration of the wild bananas' remaining forest habitats in India's remotest regions and the jungles of Southeast Asia to catalogue surviving species as well as conservation efforts to offset loss of the species' natural habitat and research on expanding the use of wild bananas in breeding programs.

India is the world's largest banana grower, with an annual production of 16.8 million tonnes, or over 20 percent of total world output of 72.6 million tonnes in 2005 of the world's most exported fruit and fourth most important food commodity after rice, wheat and maize in terms of production value.

But over exploitation and the loss of forests as a result of encroachment and logging, slash-and-burn cultivation and urbanisation, are causing a rapid loss of wild banana species that have existed in India for thousands of years, the WHO said.

Among them are the ancestors of the Cavendish variety, the large, pulpy dessert banana which currently accounts for virtually all of the world trade, amounting to nearly 20 million tonnes a year.

"The Indian subcontinent has made an enormous contribution to the global genetic base of bananas,' FAO Agricultural Officer NeBambi Lutaladio said.

"But due to ecosystem destruction, it is probable that many valuable gene sources have now been lost. This could cause serious problems because bananas, particularly commercial varieties, have a narrow genetic pool and are highly vulnerable to pests and diseases.'

In the 1950s, the then dominant commercial banana, Gros Michel, was destroyed by Panama disease. Cavendish, which resisted the disease, was introduced then.

But Lutaladio pointed out that small scale farmers around the world grow a wide range of bananas that are not threatened by diseases currently affecting commercial bananas.

FAO said that bonobo was Alexander's delectable dessert in 327 B.C. during his invasion of India that led to the fruit's widespread migration.

From India it traveled to the Middle East, where it acquired its current name from the Arabic banana, or finger, and from there Arab traders took it to Africa, where the Portuguese transported it to the Caribbean and Latin America.

India's lost bananas include a variety which conferred genetic resistance to the dreaded black Sigatoka fungus disease that devastated plantations in the Amazon and elsewhere.

Only one clone of the species, whose scientific name is Musa Acuminata spp Burmannicoides, remains at the botanical gardens in Kolkata.

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Suman Guha Mozumder in New York

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