Philpott takes on the GM banana
Peeling back the problems
Why the banana crisis doesn’t make me stop worrying and love GMOs14 Jan 2011
As a life-long and still die-hard banana eater -- locavoreanism be damned, they don't grow well in the North Carolina mountains -- I've been meaning to read the recent bunch of well-regarded books on the travails of Americans' favorite breakfast fruit. (Emily Biuso's 2008 Nation review piqued my appetite on this front.) The trouble with bananas is this: the export market is dominated by a single variety that's being stalked by a ruinous blight.
Well, lucky me: bananas have gotten the New Yorker treatment. Rather than plow through books, you can now read Mike Peed's recent, quite good and not-very-long piece ($ub req'd) on the looming banana crisis. The article has generated plenty of buzz in sustainable-food circles. Before I had a chance to read it, I saw a couple of list-serv postings arguing that it presents a compelling case for subjecting bananas to genetic modification.
The argument seems to go like this. Bananas are a massive source of nutrients and income in the global south. The one variety that has been deemed fit for the export market -- the Cavendish, selected for bland flavor, portability, and monster yields -- risks being wiped out by a fungus bearing the oddly frightful name of Tropical Race Four. If only geneticists could find a gene that resists Tropical Race Four and splice it into banana plants, the catastrophe could be averted. Moreover, unlike with, say, corn or alfalfa, there's no chance of a GMO Cavendish spreading genetic material to wild or non-GMO bananas, because the Cavendish is sterile.
But I came away from Peed's article with the opposite conclusion: I see no compelling case for GMO-izing bananas. First of all, such a project would probably have little effect on how people eat where bananas are actually grown. Peed reports that despite the yellow fruit's ubiquity in U.S. and European supermarkets, 87 percent of bananas produced in the world are consumed right where they're grown: in the hot parts of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. And guess what? Tropical Race Four doesn't threaten this bounty.