The global banana cultivation is one big monoculture. 50% of all bananas in the world are of the same variety: the Cavendish banana. That is because it is the only banana variety that is resistant to Panama disease, a fungal disease that threatened to wipe out banana cultivation in the 1950s. And with it the livelihood of 500 million people, who depend on banana production for their food and income.
In Kema’s vision, the solution lies in diversification, away from monoculture
Threatened to exterminate? But that just ‘threatens again’, discovered Gert Kema, phytopathologist (plant disease expert) at WUR. The same fusarium fungus that caused Panama disease, but a different strain, TR4, is slowly but inescapably re-spreading the world. The spores of this soil fungus can survive in the soil for decades. They appear to spread through water, for example as a result of flooding caused by typhoons. And they travel with people, on their shoes, clothes or tools. They infect all kinds of weeds without making them sick, but when they come across a banana, they are a real ‘killer’. Kema calls it a pandemic, which has been spreading from Indonesia since the 1960s and has now also reached Central America.
Such a vulnerable situation calls for a solution. In Kema’s view, the solution lies in diversification, away from monoculture. But yes, you can be so advanced, before you have grown different varieties through breeding techniques, you are soon ten years further. That takes too long for banana cultivation.
And so Kema turned to that other option to save banana cultivation: with the help of innovation and cultivation improvement. “Remove the banana from the (contaminated) soil, put it on a substrate, in the greenhouse, hang it ‘on the drip’ with just enough water and nutrients, see what happens and collect the data about it,” he concludes. the process briefly. To learn from it and to apply the knowledge to banana growers worldwide. The first phase of his pilot, in the test greenhouse in Wageningen, has already yielded encouraging results.
And so there was room for the next phase, in a collaboration between WUR and the business community, on a slightly larger scale. In recent years, 4 banana varieties have been grown in the Neder Banaankas in Ede. and it was examined how the bananas that would come from it could be processed and valorised. From ‘head to butt’, or the whole plant. Bananas are a perennial crop, but that is because the plant continually generates new shoots that develop into a fruit-bearing ‘tree’ in about 9 months. After harvest, the trunks and leaves are usually discarded or burned. Not very sustainable.
Because diversification takes at least 10 years, Kema focused on improving cultivation
With that in mind, Pieter Vink of Neder Banaan, the spin-off that arose from the WUR pilot, has spent the past few years scouring town and country in search of start-ups that could have applications for the Ede greenhouse bananas.
There are 4 varieties in the greenhouse in Ede: the Cavendish was harvested on Wednesday 24 November by Gert Kema, who is enthusiastically wielding a machete. The ‘predecessor’ of the Cavendish, the Gros Michel, still has to grow a bit and is harvested later, just like the plantains and an East African banana variety, which is used to make traditional banana beer. That is also still in the pipeline in Ede. All bananas are harvested green and then undergo a ripening process. That takes about 6 to 8 days, under just as strictly controlled conditions as in the greenhouse.
From ‘bunch’ to trunk
Vink is proud that eventually the entire banana plant will be processed. Of course the bananas (a bunch of bananas is called a ‘bunch’) themselves, which turn out to be particularly tasty. They will be pureed as raw material for all kinds of products, such as banana eclairs. But the skin will also be processed into marinated, vegetable ‘bacon strips’, says Vink. The leaves are frozen and cut to be used for cooking (steaming). Vink has even found 2 applications for the logs: a company that makes pallets with it (by collecting, chopping and then pressing the logs) and a startup that processes the logs into fibers to make lingerie.
The banana beer will be a separate project, which Vink is already particularly looking forward to. Like Kema, he emphasizes that you can of course have all kinds of questions when growing bananas in a greenhouse. But with the results and data of this research, of these bananas grown in the Netherlands, that banana farmer in Peru or the Philippines will soon also be able to continue growing bananas. And no one can argue with that.
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New technology saves banana cultivation – Neder Banaan leaves the fungus in the soil and removes the banana – Foodlog