"Only GM can save the banana" is the underlying message of a story that first surfaced in 2001, made a comeback in 2003, and has done the rounds in the media ever since. The story claims that because bananas are sterile, they can't be bred to avoid virulent banana diseases and so could be extinct within a decade.

According to the story, "The standard variety, the Cavendish, is already threatened with a disease called black Sigatoka, and a new strain of another fungal condition, Panama disease, could wipe the plant out within a decade." The banana business, we are told, is "doomed".[1] "No more fresh bananas. No more banana bread. No more banana muffins or banana cream pie."[2] Worse still, bananas are an important nutritional source for many in the developing world. "Half a billion people in Africa and Asia depend on the banana for up to half their daily calories," say the reports.[3] "Genetic engineering may be the only answer"[4]: "Scientists believe that the creation of a GM banana that can resist the diseases may be the only way of preserving the fruit's future."[5]

Each time this headline-grabbing story (re)emerges, it gets expertly debunked... untill the next time comes around. And almost every time, the same scientist is quoted, Dr Emile Frison. Here are some of the headlines Dr Frison has helped to generate:

"Without a genetic fix, the banana may be history" 
"Bananas 'will slip into extinction without GM'"
"'Decrepit' banana faces extinction in 10 years"
"Yes, we'll have no bananas"
"Bananas could split for good"

"Defenceless banana 'will be extinct in 10 years'"
"GM banana needed to fend off pests"
"Bananas 'killed off' by 2013
"Banana could split for good"
"Banana on a slippery slope to extinction"
"Bye Bye Banana"
"Bananas; an endangered fruit"
"Banana R.I.P."

But the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has directly contradicted Dr Frison's claims that bananas are on the verge of extinction, saying that while there are problems of vulnerability to disease, this is aggravated by the widescale commercial use of the Cavendish banana, and can be countered by promoting greater genetic diversity. The FAO also points out that small-scale farmers around the world grow a wide range of banana species which are mostly less threatened than the Cavendish. There are, in fact, hundreds of different species of banana, and only 10 percent of the bananas produced and consumed globally are from the Cavendish.[6]

Other scientists have also dismissed the claim that the banana is close to extinction. The Thai scientist, Benchamas Silayoi from Kasetsart University's Faculty of Agriculture, has said it is just not possible for bananas to vanish so quickly. She points out that there is a world collection of banana germplasm in the Catholic University in Leuven, Belgium, containing over 1,100 accessions, precisely for the purpose of conserving the plant. In addition, there is also an Asian banana collection in the Philippines, and Thailand also has its own collection at Kasetsart University's banana tissue culture lab. According to Benchamas, pests and diseases could not possibly make the banana extinct in the kind of time period claimed. "Only big bombs can do that," she says.[7]

Plant pathologist Dr David Jones, a banana specialist, has also contradicted the claim that genetic engineering may be the only option for improving "sterile" banana cultivars. He points out that although "sterile" bananas "don't breed well, if at all, they can be induced to produce seed if pollinated by hand. Honduras's agricultural research foundation has had the most successful conventional banana breeding programme to date. The Honduran Foundation of Agricultural Research (FHIA) has bred disease-resistant bananas that are now grown extensively in Cuba [where severe problems with disease occurred  previously]. One called Goldfinger is also grown in Australia, and others are on trial in Africa and elsewhere. Conventional breeding can deliver the goods, especially when it comes to  bananas favoured by developing countries."[8] Even in the case of the familiar Cavendish banana with its supposed sterility problems, recent research in Honduras has shown that a few Cavendish plants can produce viable seeds. Researchers at the FHIA say these non-sterile fruit form the basis of a series of promising hybrids, that can be bred for resistance to the fungi.[9] David Jones says it may also be possible "to breed a commercially acceptable disease-resistant export banana using a fertile dwarf variety of 'Gros Michel', an earlier export dessert banana."

In addition, less controversial biotechnologies than genetic engineering have been used with some apparent success, most notably propagation through tissue culture as a means of reducing the risk of spreading banana diseases. And according to banana expert Dan Koeppel: "Most banana researchers agree that the real answer - as has been the case with crops like potatoes, apples, and grapes - is to abandon the monoculture that makes the emergence of a disease so devastating. A more diverse banana harvest would allow farmers to isolate susceptible bananas, surrounding them with more resistant varieties."[9]

Stories suggesting GM is the only means of saving the banana follow a classic pattern. An exaggerated crisis narrative is created in order to then present genetic engineering as the magical solution to an otherwise intractable problem. This then creates a false dilemma - accept GM or watch poor people suffer. The aim is to blackmail reluctant consumers and farmers into accepting GM bananas as the only solution to a problem that is far more complex than admitted, and where other measures are already proving effective. The driving force behind such scare stories, of course, is the need to overcome market rejection.

It is also worth noting that the GM crops developed to date have generally enabled much greater corporate control of farming - the very last thing small banana farmers need, as they already often have to contend with hugely powerful multinational corporations. On top of that, the biggest threat to the banana, according to the FAO, arises from genetic uniformity, and genetic engineering - with all its hype about techno-fixes - is likely to discourage the pursuit of genetic diversity, reinforcing uniformity.

Interestingly, Dr Emile Frison, the scientist who has done so much to promote GM bananas, is the director general of Bioversity International (BI). BI was set up to deploy genetic resources to counter the rapid loss of crop biodiversity. Although it lays strong emphasis on its governmental sources of funding, among the list of Top 20 donors in BI's Annual Report 2008 is the Global Crop Diversity Trust, which includes among its funders the big corporate players in genetic modification (GM), DuPont and Syngenta. Also among the Top 20 donors to BI are other well known proponents of GM, such as USAID.[10]


[1] Mark Henderson, "Bananas 'will slip into extinction without GM'", The Times, 16 January 2003

[2] Robert Alison, "Yes, we'll have no bananas", Globe & Mail (Canada), 19 July 2003

[3] Robert Uhlig, "Defenceless banana 'will be extinct in 10 years", Daily Telegraph, 16 January 2003

[4] Robert Uhlig, "Defenceless banana 'will be extinct in 10 years", Daily Telegraph, 16 January 2003

[5] Mark Henderson, "Bananas 'will slip into extinction without GM'", The Times, 16 January

[6] "Bananas not on verge of extinction, says FAO", UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Rome, Italy, 30 January 2003; 
"UN food agency says bananas not threatened", Agence France Presse, January 30 2003

[7] "Bananas 'can't disappear by 2013'", The Nation, January 30 2003

[8] David Jones, "Bananas about GM", New Scientist, August 4 2001, Letters

[9] Dan Koeppel, "The Beginning of the End for Bananas?", The Scientist, July 22 2011

[10] "Biodiversity International", SpinProfiles, accessed June 30 2009