Bananagrams

“Banana Day”

Some foodies may know today as “Banana Day”. The origins of this day are a little unknown, but every year, students all over North America go….well, let’s just say kind of bananas. They eat and share weird yet wonderful banana concoctions as some even dress up in yellow banana suits. There aren’t many days in the year when you can goof off and have a little fruit-based fun, so go ahead… go a little bananas!

What’s So Appealing About Your Banana?

Every Friday at lunch hour, my high school held small contests between the four Houses to collect “House Points” which would be tallied up along with our “Spirit Day” competition scores at the end of the year to win us the glory of the House Cup trophy. Each competition was a fierce battle between us, the Kodiaks, and the other Houses. I remember one specific Friday, the sun was bright as can be, shining into the atrium window where the contest was held. It was an intense competition of “BYOBB” (Bring your own big banana [and spoon]), for a scoop of ice cream to make your own banana split – to see who had the longest banana. The night before, I had gone grocery shopping with my mother, we hit up a local Korean market where she finds her affordable Asian greens and tofu…. There it was!  At the right hand side of the the store entrance, amongst the coloured squared pallets of produce pyramids, I found my gold piece… The Biggest Banana I Had Ever Seen!

The following day, I had brought it in with a proud grin as big the bananas in the atrium. I showed it to my fellow warrior Kodiaks – for sure, we though we’d win the most points here. Little did I know, the trophy in my hand was a fraud – it was no banana, but a plantain instead!

The plantain fruit resembles a banana but appear longer, have a thicker skin and contains less moisture than the banana. Hence, starches are converted to sugars faster in bananas than plantains. Plantains are a major staple in Africa, Latin America and Asia, often eaten cooked unless they are very ripe. Together, they provide more than 25% of food energy requirements for around 70 million people globally (CGIAR).

How Much Do You Know About Bananas?

It wasn’t until later in my studies and during my travels to Peru and Barbados that my banana horizon began to expand.

For most of us, the word “banana” will trigger the same bright yellow crescent-shaped fruit image that is peeled for use and sweet to taste. This banana we all know is called the “Cavendish”. In the 1820’s the most prominent commercial banana fruit was the “Gros Michel”, however, by the 1950’s it was practically wiped out by a fungus disease known as the “Panama Disease” or “banana wilt”.

Panama Disease disrupts the water transporters in the plant’s roots, causing the plant to wilt and eventually die of dehydration. This led to the birth of the “Cavendish Era” where banana growers turned to another breed that was immune to this fungus, a smaller fruit that was capable of surviving global travel and able to grow in infected soils.

However, that is not to say that history will not repeat itself. While breeders around the world were busy cultivating their Cavendishes, the Panama disease was busy developing a new strain. Sure enough, March 2015, a farm in Tully, Queensland went into quarantine after its crops were destroyed by the Tropical Race 4 (TR4) strain and since then has been seen in many other countries as well.

Bananas and Food Security

For millions of people around the globe, bananas and plantains are a staple food for many. In fact, it ranks fourth in total global production after maize, rice and wheat (FAO, 2017). They grow in a wide range of environments and produce fruits year-round, providing an energy during “hunger periods” when other crops are no longer available. In intercropping systems, banana crops also provide ground shade for other crops, and crop residues can used as feed for animals, or turned to mulch to maintain soil fertility (Frison et al, 1998).

Fact! In the East African highlands, consumption may be as high as 1 kilogram per person per day (CGIAR).

Fortunately, there is some diversity in our banana plantations. Just to put things into perspective, currently 15% of global banana and plantain production is involved in international trade- that’s referring to our “Cavendish” variety (CGIAR). Most production is consumed domestically, contributing to household food security of many small-scale farmer as a food source or as key income. Who knew there’d be so many kinds of bananas?

One proposed solution to the banana crisis is to genetically diversify. When civilizations began working the land, selective breeding was used to pass on desirable traits of the crops whilst omitting the undesirable ones. This process led to monocultures, or entire fields of nearly genetically identical crops. However, this lack of diversity makes crops extremely susceptible to disease. Bacteria are in constant flux and when a disease-causing bacterium changes to attack a specific genetic variation, the entire species is at risk. Genetic diversity reduces this vulnerability and improves resilience of crops.

Banana-Blog-Images
Photograph obtained from: The Real Food Diary

Currently there are over 1000 different varieties of bananas or plantains, of which about half are edible. They come in all shapes and sizes as well as colour. In my travels to the Peru, I was told by women of the shanty-towns that they keep the orange-fleshed bananas (higher carotenoid, or vitamin A content varieties) for the young children at home because they are thought to be more nutritious. In Peru as well as in Cuba and Barbados, plantains were a staple food served on the side of proteins. In Uganda and Sudan, banana beer is distilled to produce banana alcohol, or “waragi” (Frison et al, 1998). In many Asian countries, banana leaves are used for wrapping food and firewood, and the plant fiber is used for making ropes and fishnets.

Obligatory selfie whilst sharing a banana with Mr Alpaca at Macchu Picchu

We’ve come an incredibly long way with our agriculture methods with the innovations and technological advancements; we have successfully domesticated a multitude of crops and genetically selected our plant gene pool to express the traits we desire to produce more yield at lower cost and sweeter, larger fruits. In fact, by 2012, the volume of worlds gross banana exports reached a record high of 16.5 million tonnes (FAO, 2017). Let learn to be smart in our advances, continue to move forward in our food production, but also to improve our gene pool. Just as we strive to be diverse in our cultivation of the plant, let us also be creative in the use of the fruits we do have. For the banana’s sake, let us strive for a more food secure future!

A Note to Dietitians: 

Hunger lurks everywhere. It does not discriminate if we are male or female, if we are young or old. Whether you work in media, counselling or in food service, all of us have the power to influence food security rates. We can improve the health of our next generation, by transforming how food insecurity is approached, discussed and treated in the nutrition field. We need to eradicate the stigma associated with food assistance, and get comfortable asking for permission to talk about access and affordability of food. To win the war on hunger and improve health, we must transform the way we collectively talk about food and counsel clients. We must increase the promotion of affordable nourishing foods, incorporate dignity to all aspects of food assistance process, and screen for food insecurity at every client visit. 

Here is a Ted Talk by Clancy Cash Harrison, a paediatric dietitian and a food justice advocate: on The Shocking Truth about Food Insecurity. I cannot find better words myself.

To celebrate how far we’ve come in food science, technology and innovation, here’s a quick recipe to invite Spring: Two-Way Banana Nice Cream. Or find it under “Bread Box” recipes tab.

 

Citations 

CGIAR. Banana and Plantain. http://www.cgiar.org/our-strategy/crop-factsheets/bananas/

FAO (2017). Banana boom improves food, nutrition and income security for smallholder farmers in Zimbabwe. http://www.fao.org/in-action/banana-boom-improves-food-nutrition-and-income-security-for-smallholder-farmers-in-zimbabwe/en/

Frison et al (1998). INIBAP: Bananas and Food Security, International Symposium. http://pdf.usaid.gov/pdf_docs/Pnack082.pdf

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