Professor Rony Swennen is a world authority in banana science having researched bananas for more than 40 years. “Bananas are facing major challenges,” he says. “The world population is growing and banana yields need to increase. Banana plantations usually only contain one type of banana which makes them vulnerable, for example, to climate change or to pest and disease outbreaks – a massive 40% of the world's bananas are Cavendish bananas, which are genetically similar.”
Yet there are more than 1,500 varieties of edible and wild species of banana in the Bioversity International Musa Germplasm Collection here at KU Leuven, curated by Ines van den houwe, Bioversity International. “The collection is the richest source of banana diversity in the world, with the potential to contribute to more resilient banana production systems. This new agreement helps secure the future of banana diversity,” she explains.
Dessert bananas and plantains, and other cooking bananas, are an important source of nutrition and income around the world. Bananas are produced in 135 countries and territories across the tropics and subtropics. The majority producers are farmers who grow the crop for either home consumption or for local markets (less than 15% of the global production of more than 144 million tonnes is exported). An estimated 30 million people subsist on bananas and related species as the principal source of dietary carbohydrate.
“Bananas are an essential food crop, especially in Africa and Asia,” Professor Swennen continues. “Unlike our sweet banana they are mainly cooked. For example, in Uganda, bananas provide 20% of the daily caloric intake, increasing to around 70% in some areas of Western Uganda. To improve the yield of bananas, we need more research and understanding, better agricultural techniques and sufficient healthy banana varieties. For example, our long-term goal is to find a whole range of 'climate-smart' bananas – the most suited to each type of climate. These kinds of planned activities are why this collaboration between KU Leuven and Bioversity International is essential.”
Juan Lucas Restrepo, the new Director General of Bioversity International agrees. “It's urgent. We must safeguard and use banana diversity for the sake of the millions of people who depend on it for their food and livelihoods. This framework agreement with KU Leuven helps make that possible. For example, future plans include further study of banana and its wild relatives to identify those varieties that are resistant to major pests and diseases, drought tolerant, more nutritious and suited to the local socioeconomic context where they are grown. It also means building on smallholder farmers’ knowledge to use this resource, to make production systems more productive and resilient to shocks.”
Professor Koen Debackere, Managing Director of KU Leuven, is convinced this agreement will strengthen the partnership. “Professor Swennen’s team and Bioversity International have a long-standing history of productive collaborations. KU Leuven is proud of their joint efforts and the results they’ve achieved. The continuous interaction between fundamental science and efficient valorisation strategies is a hallmark of our KU Leuven science and innovation ambitions. Banana diversity and productivity must be high on our research and valorisation agenda given the demographic and climate challenges we face. The work of Bioversity International and Professor Swennen and his team has been exemplary and will continue to be so. This agreement consolidates a long-standing and strong collaboration, which bodes well for the future of banana research and innovation.”