Millions of people around the world depend on banana as a source of food and income. However, despite increasing global banana production, yields of banana – both dessert and cooking types – are far below their potential. Production is affected by: a range of pests and diseases such as Fusarium wilt, bacterial wilts, nematodes, weevils, black leaf streak and bunchy top; declining soil fertility; abiotic stress such as drought and extreme weather events brought about by climate change.
Some 500 cultivars of banana are estimated to exist. However, over 40% of all cultivars grown worldwide belong to only one genetically narrow group – the Cavendish subgroup. The tendency to replace local diversity with a single high-yielding cultivar as a monocrop is increasing every year, even in smallholder fields, sometimes resulting in complete loss of local diversity. The risks associated with relying on one or a few genetically similar cultivars of a crop are well known, as the Irish Potato Famine demonstrated in the 19th Century.
There is an urgent need to protect and further explore the diversity of banana (Musa), both wild and cultivated, to increase diversity in farmers’ fields, for more resilient smallholder banana production systems.