Wed, Jan 22, 2003 - Page 11 News List

Expert rebuts banana extinction warning


A local banana expert yesterday rebutted a French scientist's warning that bananas will be wiped out by a disease in 10 years time.

"There isn't such a threat. I suspect he made the warning so that the United Nations will allocate more funds to develop disease-resistant banana species," Huang Hsin-chuan, director of the Taiwan Banana Research Institute (香蕉研究所), said by telephone.

Huang was responding to the warning made by Emile Frison, head of the International Network of the Improvement of Banana and Plantain (INIBAP) in Montpellier, France.

In his article which appeared in the journal New Scientist last Thursday, Frison said that in the 1950s the dominant Gros Michel banana was wiped out by Panama disease (yellow leaf disease) and that now its successor the Cavendish is threatened by black Sigatoka (leaf spot disease), another fungal disease.

Frison said as soon as scientists develop a new fungicide, black Sigatoka develops resistance, so he fears bananas will die from the disease in 10 years time, unless scientists create new species through genetic engineering.

The warning caused panic around the world. But Huang suspects the true purpose of Frison's statements is to obtain more funds from the UN to develop disease-resistant banana species.

"In main banana-growing countries, black Sigatoka is the main disease. Farmers have to spray fungicide every 10 days. But consumers in Europe and Japan -- the biggest banana markets -- do not want bananas with fungicide for health reasons. So multinational companies which run banana plantations are trying to develop disease-resistant banana species," he said.

"To develop new varieties, INIBAP needs funds. That's why it made the warning," he said.

INIBAP gets funds from UN organizations such as the Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Bank.

Huang said the real threat to bananas is Panama disease, but since 1975 Taiwan has developed several species resistant to it.

Panama disease exists in other banana-growing countries but has not spread to all plantations.

"The best species is Bao Dao [Presious Island] Banana. It is resistant to Panama Disease and its output is 40 percent higher than other species," he said.

Taiwan used to be known as Asia's "banana kingdom," but lost the title to the Philippines.

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