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Diversifying bananas to avoid fungi threat: First sustainable “Dutch bananas” grown

Researchers from Wageningen University & Research (WUR) have grown the “first Dutch bananas” in the greenhouses of the experimental farm Unifarm in Wageningen, the Netherlands. The unique research experiment uses two types of substrates – coco peat and rock wool – and wants to offer pioneering ways of growing bananas without the settlement of aggressive fungi that is threatening banana production around the globe.

Wageningen University & Research worked with a number of partners including Dutch farming cooperative Boerenhart, Triple20, Keygene and banana giant Chiquita. The bananas are now ready to be harvested and will then go to a Chiquita ripening center. Boerenhart is to offer the bananas as a “regional product” to restaurants and hospitals in the Netherlands. 

“We are on the way to developing sustainable banana cultivation with new breeds of bananas that are resistant to diseases and that are grown in healthy soils in a responsible social climate," says Professor of Tropical Plant Pathology Gert Kema, lead researcher in the project. 

“For the 100th anniversary of WUR, we developed this plan together with the local cooperation Boerenhart: the cultivation of a regional banana in the Wageningen greenhouses,” says Kema. “With this experiment, we will investigate whether this cultivation offers prospects for further research into mastering fusarium wilt. This is due to a soil borne fungal pathogen that threatens the banana production throughout the world. So we took the banana out of the soil.”

The experiment appears to be very successful, says Professor Kema.

“The banana plants grow very well on coco peat and stone wool substrate with only the application of a nutrient solution. The advantage of substrate cultivation is that nutrients can be better tailored to the needs of the plant. In addition, you prevent losses, possibly about 30 percent, from leakage. The Dutch banana does not need disease control, which makes cultivation more sustainable than in traditional production areas.”

Currently, there are 60 plants in the greenhouse, but there are hundreds of thousands of hectares of banana production worldwide. 

Kema tells FoodIngredientsFirst that although the project started as a celebratory experiment, “the problems we are researching are very serious and the banana business is very important to millions of small growers, especially in Africa.”

In particular, Kema notes the importance of bringing new varieties to the market and gaining consumer interest. 

“We started an initiative to slash down the monoculture and bring diversity and new varieties to the market that can outcompete the Cavendish variety and make  banana production globally sustainable,” Kema explains.

“One of the problems is the inflexibility of retail to change. Consumers are used to the Cavendish and that is it. And that is the same within the industry. 

“We can start to expose consumers to more diversity even in a small volume and that needs a vehicle to interest and inform consumers on diversity and the banana is popular enough to do so. With all the attention we are getting from banana research, we see that the consumers are also interested in the company story as well. We should use this interest to expose them to more diversity,” he says.

“Think of consumers or restaurants and hospitals in the region. This way we can also start growing other varieties, for a more diverse range. We are also planning a trial in the Philippines to see how precision cultivation works under ideal conditions.”

Kema tells FoodIngredientsFirst that several partners are interested in continuing this method of cultivation in greenhouses or other buildings in order to serve a small regional market.

“The partners with which we collaborate are widely interested in rolling this out in two ways. First, by expanding production in an indoor environment, either greenhouse or a building, where you can grow more varieties so that you can expose consumers to more diversity,” he notes. 

“The second application is using this as a potential option to cope with Panama disease and this, of course, is of great interest in the areas where Panama disease is striking bananas. The demonstration experiment shows that if you plant your bananas in substrate, you can even grow them in Fusarium infested soil because the roots are not in contact with the soil anymore. So you are literally lifting them off the soil to solve the problem. That is what we will be doing in the coming year as well.” 

Panama disease is a plant disease of the roots of banana plants. It is a type of fusarium wilt, caused by the fungal pathogen fusarium oxysporum and the pathogen is resistant to fungicide and cannot be controlled chemically.

Before the Cavendish variety became mainstream, the Gros Michel banana was the dominant cultivar of bananas, however, the blight inflicted enormous costs and forced producers to switch to other, disease-resistant cultivars some decades ago. But, new strains of Panama disease currently threaten the production of today's most popular cultivar so the race is on to develop disease-resistant, sustainable bananas, one of the world’s most popular fruit. 

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