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KU Leuven searching for climate-smart bananas

Chris Simoens
17 April 2019
A new agreement between KU Leuven and Bioversity International should safeguard the future of bananas. 


Bananas are the 4th most important food crop after rice, wheat and maize in the tropics. Not only do we refer to the well-known sweet dessert bananas, but also to baking, cooking and beer bananas. Each year, 148 million tonnes of bananas are harvested. For 400 million people – mainly in Africa and Asia – bananas are an indispensable food component.


However, bananas are facing major threats. “The world population is growing and banana yields need to increase”, says Prof. Rony Swennen, who has been researching bananas at the KU Leuven for over 40 years. “But banana plantations usually only contain one type of bananas, which makes them very vulnerable to disease outbreaks or the effects of climate change.”


Banana collection


The agreement between KU Leuven and Bioversity International, which was signed on 8 April 2019, should be a step in the right direction. This is no coincidence in Leuven, since its university houses the largest banana collection in the world: more than 1500 wild and edible varieties! The collection is managed by Bioversity International, one of the international institutions (or 'CGIAR') that carry out agricultural research, operating under the auspices of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). The Belgian Development Cooperation has been supporting banana research for more than 40 years.


“Our collection is an important source of diversity”, says Ines Van Denhouwe (Bioversity International), curator of the collection. “It is within this biodiversity that we have to look for new, smart, resilient bananas. The agreement will help us in this quest.”

 

Our long-term goal is to know which type of banana is the most suited for each climate.

Prof. Rony Swennen

Climate-smart bananas

“Among other things, these new banana species will be more resistant to diseases and drought, but also more nutritional”, explains Juan Carlos Restrepo, director of Bioversity International. “The varieties must also be suitable for the context in which they are grown. The knowledge of local farmers plays an important role in this. Collaboration is crucial to make banana production more productive.”


“Our long-term goal is to know which type of banana is the most suited for each climate”, adds Prof. Swennen. “In this way, we can map out a whole range of 'climate smart bananas'.”


Through this strengthened collaboration between KU Leuven and Bioversity International, fundamental research will lead to faster applications for smallholder farmers. The producers will be directly involved in the evaluation of varieties in the field.


After all, the ultimate goal is to ensure food and livelihood for millions of people. But the research also shows the crucial role of 'agrobiodiversity'. In fact, the diversity of agricultural crops will turn out to be indispensable if we want to meet the environmental and climate challenges of the future.

 


Read more about the fascinating world of bananas and banana research in Leuven.

A rack with hundreds of test tubes with banana shoots.
© KU Leuven
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