How to Protect Bananas from Becoming Endangered

The banana stands out in the fruit section because it is strange; a long, curved, yellow fruit amongst the rounder red, blue, and purple fruits.  But for all of our love for the peculiar fruit, it is endangered, due to a disease called Fusarium wilt.  Fusarium wilt, caused by a fungus called Fusarium oxysporum f.sp cubense tropical race 4 (TR4), began its attack on bananas in Southeast Asia in the 1990s and exploded across global banana-producing regions, leaving behind a wake of wilted, discolored trees with no viable fruit.   Since the emergence of the disease, countless preventions and treatments have been tried without success resulting in diminished banana supply affecting people in the U.S. and in developing countries alike.  That’s why agricultural researchers at the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture, IITA, or a new start-up called Tropic Biosciences are turning to genetic modification to breed a new banana that can withstand Fusarium wilt.

The banana we know was plucked from its tree because it was a mutant, a lone tree producing yellow bananas in a grove of small, red bananas.  Unlike other red bananas, which had to be cooked before consumed, the mutant yellow banana was tasty when it was raw.  Because the yellow bananas were mutant themselves, any new tree that was planted started as a sucker or side-shoot of an existing tree.  Soon banana groves in Latin America, Australia, Southeast Asia, or Sub-Saharan Africa were populated with thousands of trees with the exact same genetics.  However, it’s nemesis, TR4, quickly rose up to challenge the banana craze.   TR4 saw the genetically-identical plantations as an opportunity, a smorgasbord of its favorite food.

The crisis of bananas vs. TR4 is a case study in the dangers of monocultures. An entire field of plants with the exact same weapons is left defenseless if their weapons are outmatched.  Encouraging plantings of diverse plants species and individuals allows an ecosystem to bounce back when threats do emerge.  But at this point, if we want to continue the production of our favorite fruit, we need to focus on the plant’s genetics as well.

Plant breeding has been around since the advent of agriculture. It’s how we got corn or wheat from native grasses and the wide variety of crops we grow. Humans have always been selective about the plants and traits they desire and grow.  But in the past, we planted seeds and hoped for the best.  When researchers discovered DNA in the 1960s, we gained a better sense of the exchange of chromosomes that happens during reproduction and were able to be more particular about the crop traits we were hoping for.  The traits that we love about bananas, their amount of fruit and seedlessness is a result of being triploid.  Instead of two sets of chromosomes like humans have, bananas have three sets of chromosomes which often renders them sterile.  In order to get a new banana variety, breeding involves tedious steps of crossing bananas, planting a new tree, and waiting to see if the banana actually has the desired trait, which can take up to ten years.

There is another option available to us besides traditional breeding called gene-edited crops, or GECs.  Like producing GMOs, creating a GEC does involve taking a fragment of DNA and inserting it into the genome sequence of a crop, but unlike GMOs, the DNA fragments aren’t from different species but the exact same one.  While our favorite, yellow banana doesn’t have the genetic ability to defend itself against TR4, other bananas do.  Researchers can determine what part of the red or green bananas genome causes immunity and “copy and paste” those sequences into yellow bananas. GECs have the potential to help create more disease-resistant or drought-resistant crops while using traits already available in the plant population.

What makes GECs especially important for bananas is that traditionally breeding bananas is complex and unreliable. While this tool isn’t a panacea and we should strive for agricultural systems that are diverse and sustainable, gene-editing is an assistance in an ever-changing world.  Hopefully, through the addition of gene-editing techniques to our crop production tool belt, we can continue to produce and preserve important crops, even the curved, yellow banana.

Table For One, Please

As a woman, eating at or exploring a new place alone can seem at worst, dangerous, and at best, lonesome; but I’ve found it instead to be life-giving and empowering.  The first time I ate alone in a restaurant, and not just to eat a quick bite or grab a cup of coffee, was at an Indian restaurant when I was a junior in college.  I had wanted to try this restaurant, Taste of India, for months and had planned to go with my then-boyfriend as our first date after I returned from studying in Kenya.  Shortly after returning to the U.S. however, I endured a messy breakup with said boy all while experiencing reverse culture shock.  The restaurant fell to the back burner as I locked myself up from the outside world.

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Are cheap vegetables worth the price?

This post is in response to an article in the Washington Post about cheap vegetables benefitting people’s health.  I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.  Please feel free to push back against my thoughts, I’m in a constant state of working through thoughts on the food system. 

Food prices don’t matter.  Farmers, specifically the smaller-scale, family farmers, are drilled to believe the prices we assign to produce is the make or break factor in whether people buy.  This is a false assumption.  What really matters is desire and knowledge.

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Home

What elevates a place, with its sidewalks and local restaurants and smattering of churches, into a home?  How does one gain or cultivate the sense of belonging in a place that is new? I’ve lived in Michigan for two years now, my husband Dirk for almost a year and a half, and yet outside of our apartment, we look on the town we live in as observers cataloging the unfamiliar behaviors of the locals, never considering ourselves as residents.  When asked if we’ll stay in Michigan forever, we quickly respond “No”.  But why is Michigan not our home?  What is so different in the configuration of the neighborhoods and communities from the places we have considered home?

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Veggie Haikus

Some weeks, inspiration is my constant companion, but some weeks pass with no sparks or flickers.  This week was the later.  I finally cranked out a few haikus yesterday because I had to write something.  Of course, my haikus are about vegetables.  When you live on a farm and constantly discuss the different vegetables with your husband, vegetables don’t just creep into your thoughts, they are houseguests who become family members.  Enjoy my veggie themed haikus!

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Prairie Places

I’ve read Robert Frost’s “Desert Places” every day this week.  I love the imagery and have been especially moved by the fourth stanza.  I co-opted his rhyming scheme for a poem I wrote this week, which was strange because my poems usually don’t rhyme.  As I re-read “Desert Places”, I kept finding different alliteration patterns that added to the mood and meaning of his poem, creating a lyrical quality.  My poetry doesn’t have this sense of details yet, but hopefully by studying some of the greats, I can learn.  Even if you don’t read my poem, read and re-read “Desert Places”, you’ll be moved.

Desert Places

By: Robert Frost,

Snow falling and night falling fast, oh, fast
In a field I looked into going past,
And the ground almost covered smooth in snow,
But a few weeds and stubble showing last.

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