GAINESVILLE---In a state where citrus reigns supreme, most residents viewbananas as just something to slice up and toss on top of their Cheerios.
But worldwide, bananas outrank citrus as a fruit crop, and scientists atthe University of Florida are assisting in global research efforts tomanage important banana diseases and make the fruit tastier.
Researchers at UF's Tropical Research and Education Center (TREC) inHomestead have planted 36 varieties of bananas to see how they fare. Manyof the bananas are being tried for the first time in the WesternHemisphere, said Randy Ploetz, a scientist in UF's Institute of Food andAgricultural Sciences.
"We hadn't grown these bananas here before, so we didn't know how consumersmight react to them," Ploetz said. "To date, several of those that we'veharvested 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 annuallyaround the world, with 72 million tons harvested by poor farmers in thetropics.
In Latin America and Africa, bananas are considered a staple food. InUganda, 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 riceor 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 milkand 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 forcitrus -- and concentrated in Dade County. But the research in Homesteadcould boost production in Florida and help producers manage diseaseproblems worldwide.
And although the industry is small, it fills a unique market niche, saidUF/IFAS tropical fruits specialist Jonathan Crane.
"Many people throughout Florida, especially Hispanic, Caribbean andAsian-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 calledblack Sigatoka, which has turned up just 90 miles offshore in Cuba. WhileU.S. banana crops currently are free of the disease, it could easily becomea threat, Ploetz said.
"This disease could blow across the Florida Straits in a storm or come inat Miami International Airport," Ploetz said. "If it does, we'll haveproblems here like a lot of other tropical areas of the world."
Black Sigatoka affects many banana varieties, and while it does not killthe banana plant, it reduces yields by 50 percent and causes fruit to ripenprematurely and irregularly, a major problem for exported fruit. Bananabreeding programs now are developing resistant hybrids, which offer theonly hope for subsistence consumers. Moreover, as fungicides lose theirability to control this disease, the export trades may well be forced toreplace the Cavendish bananas with resistant banana clones developed inbreeding programs.
Ploetz said researchers also are breeding bananas that resist fusariumwilt, also known as Panama disease. South Florida growers have lost entirefields to the disease, so Ploetz is screening the new bananas against thedestructive problem.
Crane said South Florida growers are interested in the research because oneof the main sweet dessert bananas they grow, the 'manzana' or apple banana,is susceptible to Panama disease. Any breakthroughs could be usefulanywhere bananas are grown, he said.
Breeding fruits and vegetables for disease resistance is popular now bothin the scientific community and among consumers, Ploetz said. Crops thatare resistant to diseases can be grown with fewer or no pesticides.
"These crops are viewed as environmentally friendly and, in some cases, canbe marketed as pesticide-free," Ploetz said. "There's an increasing demandfor that type of commodity here in the United States and elsewhere in thedeveloped 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'simportance as a food crop.
"We hope to find disease resistance in a fruit that the consumer likes,"Ploetz said.
Materials provided by University Of Florida/Institute Of Food And Agricultural Sciences. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.
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