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Building A Better Banana

It is the world's No. 1 fruit, with millions of people dependent on it to stay alive. Now diseases threaten many varieties, prompting a search for new hybrids of the "smile of nature"

A replay of that upheaval may be on the horizon. A new, more virulent strain of Panama disease has started to spread. The new strain, known as Tropical Race 4, has proved lethal to a broader range of banana hosts than earlier mutations of the fusarium bacteria that causes Panama disease. Race 4 is as deadly to Cavendish as the earlier strain was to Gros Michel. It first appeared in Malaysia and Indonesia, and has spread to northern Australia and South Africa—though not, so far, to central Africa or Latin America. No known pesticide is effective against it for long. Banana exporters fear that someone may accidentally or maliciously carry infested soil or plants from the current hot zone of containment to other commercial banana-growing regions, causing devastation. “People say this Race 4 could be the end of the banana,” Tomekpé told me one evening. “That is an exaggeration. It could be the end of Cavendish and other sterile dessert bananas, but for many other types, there is hope.”

One source of hope could be Yangambi Km5, a variety I saw during my travels with Tomekpé. It was named for the spot, three miles from the Yangambi nature preserve, in the Democratic Republic of Congo where it was found and documented. “Its name in Swahili is Ibota, which means abundance,” Tomekpé said. “It yields abundantly, with big bunches and many fingers. It’s highly tolerant to many pests, and very male and female fertile, so it’s easy to cross with other varieties. But the peel is quite thin, so it’s not ideal for handling and shipping. We are working with it, developing crosses for a thicker skin and good fruit size. It’s a very promising candidate for improvement. I think there will be a market for it someday.”

Ambling through several acres of bananas at a CARBAP testing station, Tomekpé found some ripe fingers of Yangambi Km5.He gave me one and urged me to try it. Its thin peel came off easily. The fruit was slightly shorter and stubbier than your average Cavendish. I took a bite. The flesh was creamy and sweet, though far from cloying. I detected hints of strawberry, vanilla and apple—perhaps even a dash of cinnamon. I like a good Cavendish as much as anyone, but this banana was in a different league. Yangambi Km5 has survived for centuries thanks to the care of subsistence farmers in the heart of Africa, and yet when I bit into it I imagined I was tasting the future.


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