So bananas and cassava are growing as staples around the world. Not if diseases have anything to say about it

According to CGIAR (http://www.cgiar.org/), a leading Global agricultural research partnership, the leading world food staples such as wheat, maize, potato, and rice will be replaced by other crops, such as banana, cassava and cowpea.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-20126452

Travelling to many countries where bananas grow, I am not all that surprised that bananas will be replacing potatoes. They are everywhere! In Uganda they are a huge part of the diet. You fry them, steam them, eat them raw or  with chips, tomatoes and even yoghurt. You can use the leaves as a cooking pot, or as plates etc… They are also extremely tasty! Not that we would know anything about this in the UK, as we get the majority of our bananas from the West Indies. During my travels in Uganda (having been there about 7 times in 2 years), all we see is blooming bananas!

However, in the recent past, the entire East African banana region suffered from an extremely serious bacterial disease (Xanthomonas campestris) causing severe wilt and premature ripening of the fruits. This disease renders the fruit inedible, and leads to the death of the tree or the spread of the disease in the farmer’s crop, causing severe economic loss. The picture below shows quite distinct symptoms. Some fruit are green, some are yellow, but internally, they are not ripe.

A batch of bananas that is seriously affected by a bacterial disease not only must be thrown away, affecting the farmer’s earnings, but the tree needs to be cut down and burned outside the field, so that insects do not transmit to healthy banana trees nearby.

Naturally in East Africa, as bananas are so important, major research was done by all, including by CABI (my organisation) and the IITA. The disease is still a big problem in Uganda and Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), but the word has spread and farmers now know that simple measures  can drastically reduce the damage and spread, such as cutting down the male bud after the emergence of the fruit, and cleaning their tools after using it on a diseased tree. Slowly but surely, farmers are fighting the disease…

One thing I cannot comprehend however, is how Cassava can be such a popular staple. I eat it a lot in DRC and Uganda, and no kidding its just not tasty or even remotely appetizing to look at. Granted, you can make flour from it and use the leaves, but give me bananas any day of the week! It is easier to grow though so on a serious note I can see why it is becoming more popular.

Again, however, major diseases on east African cassava, such as the “Mosaic Virus” and the unfortunately named “Brown Streak” virus are ravaging cassava fields. In this case, the best way to fight the diseases are through developing resistant varieties through research. Luckily it seems a breakthrough has been made recently, according to ETH Zurich (http://www.ethlife.ethz.ch/archive_articles/120926_GMO_Maniok_per/index_EN), and a resistant variety has been developed. It still needs adequate testing and probably is a long way off, but I remain optimistic… Easier for me to say this than a farmer..

So in conclusion, new staples are shining through? Well that’s all well and good, but they’ll need to be ready for a serious upsurge in disease outbreaks. When a crop becomes too successful, or an artifical monoculture is created by man, nature has a way of keeping it in check. That’s my view anyway

Here’s to more bananas. You can never have enough of them.

till next time

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