Australian banana researcher James Dale. Image: QUT
Cavendish is our supermarket banana - the one that's under threat from the newly-remerged Panama Disease (see here for more info.) The Cavendish banana is absolutely seedless and sterile, so it cannot be bred conventionally; the only sway to ensure its future as a commercial fruit would be through genetic engineering (the alternative would be to allow the Cavendish to die out and replace it with a different - and as yet unidentified - banana variety.) Now, according to a news report from the Australia Broadcasting Company, a project spearheaded by Australian scientist James Dale, who runs the Queensland University of Technology's Centre for Tropical Crops and Biocommodities, has begun the field test of such fruit - the first time lab-modified Cavendish have ever been put to large-scale outdoor trial. The test, the story says, will be "to improve the nutrient content and disease resistance of Cavendish bananas."
Australia is in desperate banana straits right now, having lost much of its crop to poor weather and a subsequent Panama Disease attack. The field tests are partially being funded by a grant from Microsoft founder Bill Gates. (Dale, by the way, prefers to use the term "biofortification" to describe genetically engineered fruit - one of a long list of proposed terms for such processes, including "genetically modified," "transgenic," "GM," "GMO," and others. The desire to come up with a less-scary name for lab-developed foods is understandable, but misguided. The real problem is that people have been misled into thinking that all genetic modification of foods is terrifying. The responsibility for this comes partially from big agricultural companies who have behaved terribly when they have introduced modified products - but also from consumer groups who oppose all forms of genetic modification while failing to understand even the basics of the science behind it. )
Comment: The Australia trials will likely horrify some folks - possibly because earlier tests of genetic bananas weren't focused on supermarket fruit, and this brings the prospect of a so-called "Frankenbanana" closer to home. But genetic engineering isn't an absolutely scary prospect, and this kind of work is needed with bananas, both because they're a vital subsistence food, and because they're such a weak organism. And the Cavendish is a very safe banana to experiment on: with no seeds or pollen, there is zero - absolutely zero - chance of it the kind of cross-crop contamination occurring that we've seen with engineered corn. Bananas need a lot of help to survive - and the lab is one of the places that help is going to come from. Not that the Down Under effort is entirely altruistic, I'm sure: if a Panama Disease-resistant banana can be built by Dale and his team, they'll also have built a gold mine.