Banana and plantain

Bananas and plantains (Musa spp. L.) are important staple foods for nearly 400 million people in many developing countries, especially in Africa. Total global production ranks fourth after maize, rice and wheat. In the East African highlands, consumption may be as high as 1 kilogram per person per day. Of the numerous edible varieties, the East African Highland Banana (EAHB) accounts for 17% of the types of Musa grown worldwide and plantain accounts for another 19%. There are 120 EAHB varieties in Uganda alone that are not found anywhere else in the world.

Bananas and plantains provide food security and income for small-scale farmers who represent the majority of producers. Only 15% of global banana and plantain production is involved in international trade – most production is consumed domestically.

(Photo: IITA)
(Photo: IITA)

Origin and use

There are many historical references to banana and plantain. The earliest written reference was some 2500 years ago. Ancient Greek records of Alexander the Great’s campaign in India describe bananas, and the Arabs have long been familiar with the banana palm which they called by its Indian name, pala. The Romans also used this name. This led to the belief that the edible banana originated in continental South and Southeast Asia. However, later research has shown that the center of origin of the wild banana stretches from India to Papua New Guinea including Malaysia and Indonesia.

Plantain fruits resemble bananas but are longer, have a thicker skin, and contain more starch. They are a major staple in Africa, Latin America, and Asia. They are usually eaten cooked unless they are very ripe. Plantains are especially important in the humid lowlands of West and Central Africa.

Banana fruits are consumed and processed in many ways and at all stages of ripening and development, leading to products with increased shelf life, such as flour, chips, and beverages. In India and other Asian countries, banana is grown for its leaves (for plates or firewood) or fiber extracted from the pseudo‐stem (for ropes and fishing nets). In Southeast Asia, the flowers and terminal bud are eaten cooked or raw and the pseudo‐stem is mostly eaten in times of famine or used to feed pigs. Year‐round production of banana provides a food ‘bridge’ between cereal harvests when food is scarce.

Production

World production of bananas has increased by 175% over the last 30 years to 102 million metric tons in 2010. India is by far the largest producer with 32 million metric tons. Other important producers are China, the Philippines, Ecuador, Brazil, Indonesia, and Tanzania. Banana production in Africa has doubled over the last 30 years to 10 million metric tons while in Asia it has quadrupled to 62 million metric tons.

Global plantain production has increased by nearly 60% over the last 30 years to 37 million metric tons. Uganda is by far the largest producer with 9.6 million metric tons compared with the second largest producer, Ghana, with 3.6 million metric tons. Other important producers are Rwanda, Nigeria, Cameroon, and Colombia. Plantain production in Africa has nearly doubled over the last 30 years to 27 million metric tons.

Nutrition

In Africa, banana and plantain provide more than 25% of food energy requirements for around 70 million people. The pulp of a ripe banana is essentially a sugar-rich, easily-digested food. The cooked banana is nutritionally similar to the potato. It consists of about 70% water, 27% carbohydrate, 1.2% protein, and 0.3% fat. In energy terms, each gram provides one calorie. The fruit is considered a good source of vitamins A, B1, B2, and C.

The plantain contains less moisture than the banana. Consequently starches are converted to sugars faster in bananas than in plantains. In some banana cultivars, the contents of the carotenoids which can be converted into vitamin A have been found to approach those in the best-performing sweet potato and carrot cultivars.

Impact of CGIAR Centers

Genetic transformation to achieve pest and disease resistance in the cooking banana is a promising strategy for smallholder farmers in the East African highlands, as these constraints are severe and not easily addressed through conventional breeding techniques or control methods. Exports on the world market are currently negligible, so the risks of reduced exports due to policies against genetically modified foods are low. The crop is both an important food source and a significant generator of rural income, which means that improving productivity could have great social benefits.

In a major research breakthrough, International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) scientists have successfully transferred genes from green pepper to bananas that enable the crop to resist Banana Xanthomonas Wilt (BXW), one of the most devastating diseases of banana in the Great Lakes region of Africa that causes about half a billion dollars’ worth of damage yearly.

There are presently no commercial chemicals, bio-control agents or resistant varieties that could control the spread of BXW, and pesticides for controlling insect vectors are ineffective against disease spread. At present, all farmers can do is to protect their crop by following field sanitation practices such as the use of clean cutting tools and planting materials, and removal of male flower buds. If plants become infected, the only strategy to prevent further spread in the field is to uproot, chop, and sun-dry diseased plants and to replace them with clean planting material.

The fungal disease Black Sigatoka is considered the most economically important disease of banana worldwide, causing yield losses up to 50%. IITA has successfully identified variations within the Black Sigatoka species in Africa, opening up the possibility of designing new diagnostic tools.

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