"The banana is dying and only GM can save it" is a recurring crisis narrative of the GMO lobby – but the real answers to the problem of disease in bananas go unmentioned
Groundhog Day was a 1993 American comedy film starring Bill Murray as a weatherman who accepts an assignment to cover the annual Groundhog Day event – the groundhog being an animal that was superstitiously believed to be able to predict the weather. Once at the event, Murray's character finds himself caught in a time loop. He is doomed to repeat the same day over and over until he learns a lesson that eludes him up until that time. That lesson finally turns out to be that he should place the needs of others above his own selfish desires. The term "Groundhog Day" is now used to describe any recurring situation.
At GMWatch we often find ourselves in a Groundhog Day of the GMO lobby's making, as the same old "crisis narratives" with fairytale GMO "solutions" pop up every few years. These narratives promote GM as the only solution to some otherwise intractable problem. One is "GMO golden rice will save the third world from vitamin A deficiency"; another is "GM cassava is our only hope" for feeding Africa by defeating cassava viruses. Needless to say, the much-touted GMO "solutions" to these problems have yet to manifest. Meanwhile non-GMO solutions have long been available and could be rolled out more widely if adequately funded.
Now Wired magazine is promoting one of the recurring GMO fairytales, in the shape of an article called, "The banana is dying. The race is on to reinvent it before it's too late". The story is the newest incarnation of a recurring crisis narrative, "Only GM can save the banana". The "crisis" is that the most commercially popular banana variety, the Cavendish, is falling victim to a fungal disease. GMO proponents claim that genetically engineering the banana to resist the fungus is our only hope to prevent the banana going extinct. This story first surfaced nearly two decades ago but has been updated for our time by replacing boring old "GM" with the exciting "new GM" technique of genome editing.
Here's some background. Even though there are over 1,000 banana varieties in the world, the most common commercialised banana is a variety called the Cavendish, which makes up 47% of all global production of the fruit. The Cavendish is genetically uniform and grows on trees that are short enough to be easy to spray with pesticides, making it ideal for chemically-based production. The problem is that the Cavendish is falling victim to a deadly fungal pathogen called Tropical Race 4 (TR4). TR4 is a strain of the fungus Fusarium oxysporum cubense that lives in the soil, is impervious to pesticides, and kills banana plants by choking them of water and nutrients.
Wired magazine tells us, "Faced with a crisis that could see the Cavendish gone forever, a handful of researchers are racing to use gene-editing to create a better banana and bring the world’s first TR4-resistant Cavendish to the market. To get there, they will butt up against not only the limitations of technology, but resistance from lawmakers, environmentalists and consumers wary of GM crops. But as TR4 closes in on Latin America, gene-editing may be the last chance we have to save the one banana we have chosen above all others."
So, we are led to believe, only gene editing can save the banana, but the obstacle that threatens to prevent it doing so is anti-GMO sentiment.
Death, taxes, and fungus
The problem with Wired's narrative is that its absurdity is evident, even from facts given in the article itself.
As the article explains, before the Cavendish, the commercial banana of choice was the Gros Michel. But it was susceptible to Tropical Race 1 (TR1), an earlier strain of the Fusarium fungus. In response, the major banana firms switched production to their backup banana: the Cavendish. The Cavendish had been seen as a second-rate banana due to its thin skin and bland flavour. But it had one huge advantage over the Gros Michel: It was resistant to TR1. Thus it replaced the Gros Michel in US supermarkets by 1965.
Do we detect a theme here? It's obvious that the root cause of the problem with bananas is not the fungus. Thus the solution is not some unproven gene-edited fungus-resistant banana. Like death and taxes, fungus is always with us. There will always be some strain or other around to attack certain plants.
The real problem: Monoculture
The real issue is over-reliance on a single variety of banana. As every grower knows, monoculture is the quickest way to select for a pest or disease that wipes out your entire crop. Exactly the same will happen with any gene-edited resistance to a pathogen: the pathogen will self-select to overcome the resistance, or a different pathogen will move in and take over. On the level of genetics, the best defence against disease is diversity – but that's something that the banana industry has all but eliminated from commercial production. It's also something that a gene-edited variety will lack.
Another issue is that commercial fruit growing operations use glyphosate (and other herbicides) to control weeds. Studies show that glyphosate encourages the growth of fusarium in soil and plants. So chemically based commercial fruit farms are effectively nurseries for diseases.
For the sake of argument, let's be charitable beyond the evidence and assume that gene-edited resistance to a banana fungal pathogen will actually work in the field over the medium to long term. Even in that rosy scenario – which, in light of how pathogens adapt, seems highly unlikely – gene editing will be no more than the latest prop to shore up a fundamentally unsustainable system based on monoculture and chemical inputs.
If the Cavendish does go the way of the Gros Michel, some of us will happily wave goodbye to it. Just about anyone who tastes some of the hundreds of different bananas available outside of the global commercial market is struck by how delicious they are, compared with the Cavendish. Many of them travel and store well, too. And they don't need to be sprayed with pesticides to remain disease-free. Peasant farmers in India and Mexico are producing vast amounts of tasty and nutritious bananas that put the Cavendish in the shade.
It's time to move on from the tedious Groundhog Day narratives propagated by the GMO lobby and an uncritical media and to craft our own narrative – one of genetic diversity on the farm, chemical-free growing methods, and local adaptation. In line with the lesson of the film Groundhog Day, the genetic engineers need to forget their own needs and desires for patents and think of the wider "goods" of clean and productive soil and resilient cropping systems.
The benefit to the buying public will be better taste and nutrition without the risks posed by genetic engineering and agrochemical contamination.
Report: Claire Robinson