Sep. 25, 1997 GAINESVILLE---In a state where citrus reigns supreme, most residents view bananas as just something to slice up and toss on top of their Cheerios.
But worldwide, bananas outrank citrus as a fruit crop, and scientists at the University of Florida are assisting in global research efforts to manage important banana diseases and make the fruit tastier.
Researchers at UF's Tropical Research and Education Center (TREC) in Homestead have planted 36 varieties of bananas to see how they fare. Many of the bananas are being tried for the first time in the Western Hemisphere, said Randy Ploetz, a scientist in UF's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.
"We hadn't grown these bananas here before, so we didn't know how consumers might react to them," Ploetz said. "To date, several of those that we've harvested have been quite popular with our informal taste panel here at TREC."
Bananas rank fourth worldwide as the most valuable food crop, behind rice, wheat and potatoes. Almost 80 million metric tons are harvested annually around the world, with 72 million tons harvested by poor farmers in the tropics.
In Latin America and Africa, bananas are considered a staple food. In Uganda, for example, per capita banana consumption is 1.3 pounds per day -- about 16 times the amount consumed in the United States.
"It's incredible how valuable bananas are," said Ploetz. "Instead of rice or wheat, much of the world eats bananas."
Bananas are easily digested and high in vitamins A and C and in potassium. In fact, Ploetz said, "you could live indefinitely on a diet of just milk and bananas."
The Florida banana crop consists of specialty cooking and dessert bananas, not the Cavendish variety found in supermarkets. It is a small industry -- valued at about $1 million a year, compared with $1.5 billion a year for citrus -- and concentrated in Dade County. But the research in Homestead could boost production in Florida and help producers manage disease problems worldwide.
And although the industry is small, it fills a unique market niche, said UF/IFAS tropical fruits specialist Jonathan Crane.
"Many people throughout Florida, especially Hispanic, Caribbean and Asian-Americans, are familiar with these specialty bananas," Crane said, "so there is quite a demand for them."
Ploetz said researchers are keeping an eye on a devastating disease called black Sigatoka, which has turned up just 90 miles offshore in Cuba. While U.S. banana crops currently are free of the disease, it could easily become a threat, Ploetz said.
"This disease could blow across the Florida Straits in a storm or come in at Miami International Airport," Ploetz said. "If it does, we'll have problems here like a lot of other tropical areas of the world."
Black Sigatoka affects many banana varieties, and while it does not kill the banana plant, it reduces yields by 50 percent and causes fruit to ripen prematurely and irregularly, a major problem for exported fruit. Banana breeding programs now are developing resistant hybrids, which offer the only hope for subsistence consumers. Moreover, as fungicides lose their ability to control this disease, the export trades may well be forced to replace the Cavendish bananas with resistant banana clones developed in breeding programs.
Ploetz said researchers also are breeding bananas that resist fusarium wilt, also known as Panama disease. South Florida growers have lost entire fields to the disease, so Ploetz is screening the new bananas against the destructive problem.
Crane said South Florida growers are interested in the research because one of the main sweet dessert bananas they grow, the 'manzana' or apple banana, is susceptible to Panama disease. Any breakthroughs could be useful anywhere bananas are grown, he said.
Breeding fruits and vegetables for disease resistance is popular now both in the scientific community and among consumers, Ploetz said. Crops that are resistant to diseases can be grown with fewer or no pesticides.
"These crops are viewed as environmentally friendly and, in some cases, can be marketed as pesticide-free," Ploetz said. "There's an increasing demand for that type of commodity here in the United States and elsewhere in the developed world."
Although a state grant for research on tropical fruit recently ran out, Ploetz said he is continuing his work with bananas because of the fruit's importance as a food crop.
"We hope to find disease resistance in a fruit that the consumer likes," Ploetz said.
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