Here’s What Fruits And Vegetables Looked Like Before We Domesticated Them

Next time you bite into a slice of watermelon or a cob of corn, consider this: these familiar fruits and veggies didn’t always look and taste this way.

Genetically modified foods, or GMOs, inspire strong reactions nowadays, but humans have been tweaking the genetics of our favourite produce for millennia.

While GMOs may involve splicing genes from other organisms (such as bacteria) to give plants desired traits – like resistance to pests, selective breeding is a slower process whereby farmers select and grow crops with those traits over time.

From bananas to eggplant, here are some of the foods that looked totally different before humans first started growing them for food.

Wild watermelon


This detail from a 17th-century painting by Giovanni Stanchi depicts a watermelon that looks strikingly different from modern melons, as Vox points out. A cross-section of the one in the painting, which was made between 1645 and 1672, appears to have swirly shapes embedded in six triangular pie-shaped pieces.

Modern watermelon

(Scott Ehardt/Wikimedia)

Over time, humans have bred watermelons to have a red, fleshy interior – which is actually the placenta – like the ones seen here. Some people think the watermelon in Stanchi’s painting may just be unripe or unwatered, but the black seeds in the painting suggest that it was, in fact, ripe.

Wild banana

(Genetic Literacy Project)

The first bananas may have been cultivated at least 7,000 years ago – and possibly as early as 10,000 years ago – in what is now Papua New Guinea. They were also grown in Southeast Asia. Modern bananas came from two wild varieties, Musa acuminata and Musa balbisiana, which had large, hard seeds, like the ones in this photo.

Modern banana

(Domiriel/Flickr Creative Commons)

The hybrid produced the delicious modern banana, with its handy, graspable shape and peelable covering. Compared to its ancestor, the fruit has much smaller seeds, tastes better, and is packed with nutrients.

Wild eggplant

Solanum incanum (Nepenthes/Wikimedia)

Throughout their history, eggplants have come in a wide array of shapes and colours, such as white, azure, purple, and yellow – like those shown here. Some of the earliest eggplants were cultivated in China. Primitive versions used to have spines on the place where the plant’s stem connects to the flowers.

Modern eggplant

(YoAmes/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0)

But selective breeding has gotten rid of the spines and given us the larger, familiar, oblong purple vegetable you find in most grocery stores.

Wild carrot

(Genetic Literacy Program)

The earliest known carrots were grown in the 10th century in Persia and Asia Minor. These were thought to originally be purple or white with a thin, forked root – like those shown here – but they lost their purple pigment and became a yellow colour.

Modern carrot

(TTL media/.com)

Farmers domesticated these thin, white roots, which had a strong flavor and biennial flower, into these large, tasty orange roots that are an annual winter crop.

Wild corn


Perhaps the most iconic example of selective breeding is North American sweetcorn, which was bred from the barely edible teosinte plant. Natural corn, shown here, was first domesticated in 7,000 BC and was dry like a raw potato, according to this infographic by chemistry teacher James Kennedy.

Modern corn

(Rosana Prada/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

Today, corn is 1,000 times larger than it was 9,000 years ago and much easier to peel and grow. Also, 6.6 percent of it is made up of sugar, compared with just 1.9 percent in natural corn, according to Kennedy. About half of these changes occurred since the 15th century, when European settlers started cultivating the crop.

Wild peach

(James Kennedy)

Peaches used to be small, cherry-like fruits with little flesh. They were first domesticated around 4,000 BCE by the ancient Chinese and tasted earthy and slightly salty, “like a lentil”, according to Kennedy.

Modern peach

(James Kennedy)

But after thousands of years of farmers selectively breeding them, peaches are now 64 times larger, 27 percent juicier, and 4 percent sweeter.

So next time someone tells you we shouldn’t be eating food that’s been genetically modified, you can tell them we already are.

A version of this article was first published in February 2016.

This article was originally published by Business Insider.

More from Business Insider:

Edible bananas comprise several characteristics that make them an ideal target for improvement through genetic engineering: (i) they constitute the N° 1 fresh fruit crop in the world, (ii) they are highly sterile which makes classical breeding extremely difficult but at the same time prevents transgene drift via pollen into the environment, (iii) their cultivation is monoclonal, and (iv) they are susceptible to a wide range of pests and diseases. The latest outbreak of Fusarium wilt disease caused by Fusarium oxysporum f. sp. cubense “Tropical Race 4 or TR4”, which is seriously threatening the international banana trade, strengthens the need for developing resistant bananas.
Despite these facts, the number of publications and research groups dealing with genetic engineering of banana remains low compared to other crops. Possible reasons are among others the difficulties in obtaining transformation competent tissues (in case of banana embryogenic cell suspensions or ECS), the duration to obtain fully transformed plants, the cost and effort of maintaining transgenic lines, the lack of a proper and functional legal biosafety system for testing and culturing GMOs in many banana producing countries and the size of individual banana plants rendering large scale testing of transgenes extremely costly.
In this review, we discuss the 19 years history of banana genetic modification. An overview of the different transformation methodologies will be given, from the first reports on protoplast electroporation to Agrobacterium-mediated transformation of ECS. Also the applications of this technology for banana improvement (agronomic treats, quality treats, etc.) will be discussed along with examples of confined field trials of genetically modified bananas.
Finally, a brief overview of the research topics on banana genetic engineering at the Laboratory of Tropical Crop Improvement (LTCI, KU Leuven, Belgium) is discussed. Topics include selectable marker genes, promoter and gene characterization as well as molecular breeding for fungus and drought resistance.

All our food is ‘genetically modified’ in some way – where do you draw the line?

In the past week you’ve probably eaten crops that wouldn’t exist in nature, or that have evolved extra genes to reach freakish sizes. You’ve probably eaten “cloned” food and you may have even eaten plants whose ancestors were once deliberately blasted with radiation. And you could have bought all this without leaving the “organic” section of your local supermarket.

Anti-GM dogma is obscuring the real debate over what level of genetic manipulation society deems acceptable. Genetically-modified food is often regarded as something you’re either for or against, with no real middle ground.

Yet it is misleading to consider GM technology a binary decision, and blanket bans like those in many European countries are only likely to further stifle debate. After all, very little of our food is truly “natural” and even the most basic crops are the result of some form of human manipulation.

Between organic foods and tobacco engineered to glow in the dark lie a broad spectrum of “modifications” worthy of consideration. All of these different technologies are sometimes lumped together under “GM”. But where would you draw the line?

1. (Un)natural selection

Think of carrots, corn or watermelons – all foods you might eat without much consideration. Yet when compared to their wild ancestors, even the “organic” varieties are almost unrecognisable.

Domestication generally involves selecting for beneficial traits, such as high yield. Over time, many generations of selection can substantially alter a plant’s genetic makeup. Man-made selection is capable of generating forms that are extremely unlikely to occur in nature.

Modern watermelons (right) look very different to their 17th-century ancestors (left).
Christies/Prathyush Thomas, CC BY

2. Genome duplications

Unknowing selection by our ancestors also involved a genetic process we only discovered relatively recently. Whereas humans have half a set of chromosomes (structures that package and organise your genetic information) from each parent, some organisms can have two or more complete duplicate sets of chromosomes. This “polyploidy” is widespread in plants and often results in exaggerated traits such as fruit size, thought to be the result of multiple gene copies.

Without realising, many crops have been unintentionally bred to a higher level of ploidy (entirely naturally) as things like large fruit or vigorous growth are often desirable. Ginger and apples are triploid for example, while potatoes and cabbage are tetraploid. Some strawberry varieties are even octoploid, meaning they have eight sets of chromosomes compared to just two in humans.

3. Plant cloning

It’s a word that tends to conjure up some discomfort – no one really wants to eat “cloned” food. Yet asexual reproduction is the core strategy for many plants in nature, and farmers have utilised it for centuries to perfect their crops.

Once a plant with desirable characteristics is found – a particularly tasty and durable banana, for instance – cloning allows us to grow identical replicates. This could be entirely natural with a cutting or runner, or artificially-induced with plant hormones. Domestic bananas have long since lost the seeds that allowed their wild ancestors to reproduce – if you eat a banana today, you’re eating a clone.

Each banana plant is a genetic clone of a previous generation.
Ian Ransley, CC BY

4. Induced mutations

Selection – both human and natural – operates on genetic variation within a species. If a trait or characteristic never occurs, then it cannot be selected for. In order to generate greater variation for conventional breeding, scientists in the 1920s began to expose seeds to chemicals or radiation.

Unlike more modern GM technologies, this “mutational breeding” is largely untargeted and generates mutations at random. Most will be useless, but some will be desirable. More than 1,800 cultivars of crop and ornamental plants including varieties of wheat, rice, cotton and peanuts have been developed and released in more than 50 countries. Mutational breeding is credited for spurring the “green revolution” in the 20th century.

Many common foods such as red grapefruits and varieties of pasta wheat are a result of this approach and, surprisingly, these can still be sold as certified “organic”.

‘Golden Promise’, a mutant barley made with radiation, is used in some premium whiskeys.
Chetty Thomas/

5. GM screening

GM technology doesn’t have to involve any direct manipulation of plants or species. It can be instead used to screen for traits such as disease susceptibility or to identify which “natural” cross is likely to produce the greatest yield or best outcome.

Genetic technology has allowed researchers to identify in advance which ash trees are likely to be susceptible to ash dieback disease, for instance. Future forests could be grown from these resistant trees. We might call this “genomics-informed” human selection.

6. Cisgenic and transgenic

This is what most people mean when they refer to genetically modified organisms (GMOs) – genes being artificially inserted into a different plant to improve yield, tolerance to heat or drought, to produce better drugs or even to add a vitamin. Under conventional breeding, such changes might take decades. Added genes provide a shortcut.

Cisgenic simply means the gene inserted (or moved, or duplicated) comes from the same or a very closely related species. Inserting genes from unrelated species (transgenic) is substantially more challenging – this is the only technique in our spectrum of GM technology that can produce an organism that could not occur naturally. Yet the case for it might still be compelling.

Campaigns like these are aimed at cis- and transgenic crops. But what about the other forms of GM food?
Alexis Baden-Mayer, CC BY

Since the 1990s several crops have been engineered with a gene from the soil bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis. This bacteria gives “Bt corn” and other engineered crops resistance to certain pests, and acts as an appealing alternative to pesticide use.

This technology remains the most controversial as there are concerns that resistance genes could “escape” and jump to other species, or be unfit for human consumption. While unlikely – many fail safe approaches are designed to prevent this – it is of course possible.

Where do you stand?

All of these methods continue to be used. Even transgenic crops are now widely cultivated around the world, and have been for more than a decade. They are closely scrutinised and rightly so, but the promise of this technology means that it surely deserves improved scientific literacy among the public if it is to reach it’s full potential.

And let’s be clear, with global population set to hit nine billion by 2050 and the increasingly greater strain on the environment, GMOs have the potential to improve health, increase yields and reduce our impact. However uncomfortable they might make us, they deserve a sensible and informed debate.

James Borrell is a PhD researcher in Conservation Genetics at Queen Mary University of London

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


It was reported this week that Brazilian scientists are hoping to create spicy tomatoes using Crispr gene-editing techniques. Although tomatoes contain the genes for capsaicinoids (the chemicals that give chillies their heat) they are dormant – Crispr could be used to make them active. This is desirable because, compared to tomatoes, chillies are difficult to farm – and capsaicinoids have other useful applications besides their flavour – in pepper spray for example.


The beloved banana is in peril. Photograph: Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters

Genetically edited bananas could be resistant to a disease known as “fusarium wilt” that has been attacking plantations across the globe. Researchers at the Norwich-based startup Tropic Biosciences are using gene-editing techniques to develop a new, more resilient version of the fruit after securing £7.5m from investors.


Soon to be sweeter still? Photograph: Darrin Zammit Lupi/Reuters

Sweeter and even peach-flavoured strawberries are being worked on by US scientists using Crispr techniques. Due to an EU court ruling last year, Crispr-edited foods will be subject to the same regulation that has limited the planting and sale of genetically modified crops. A major player in the development of Crispr crops is the agricultural giant Monsanto.


Browning-resistant Arctic apples. Photograph: Arctic-apples

The Arctic apple is a fruit engineered to resist browning after being cut. Currently they are only available in the US – in golden, fuji and gala varieties – where they have been given Food and Drug Administration approval. If approved in Europe, they would have to be labelled as genetically modified. The manufacturers claim the main benefit is to help cut down on food waste.


The newly disease-resistant papaya. Photograph: See D Jan/Getty Images/iStockphoto

The scientist Dennis Gonsalves developed the genetically modified Rainbow papaya, which can defend itself from papaya ring spot disease by inserting a gene from the virus into the fruit’s genetic code. The Rainbow papaya was introduced in 1992, and is credited with saving Hawaii’s $11m papaya industry.

Not too often does one see fruits in the wild, and if you did you might not recognize the undomesticated fruits that form the basis of the polished produce in grocery stores (yes, apples are even waxed). Undomesticated fruits look a whole lot different – and, in some cases, are nowhere near as sweet as delicious domesticated fruits. Nowadays, grapes taste like cotton candy and apples take forever to brown. Sorry to break it to you, but that comes from genetic modification and selective breeding. Most wild fruits do not look or taste like that. Period. So, what did fruits look like before domestication?

Well, nearly every fruit you see in the grocery store weighs in at about three times larger than their wild counterparts. They barely bruise, take way longer to rot, and are brightly colored to appeal to human tendencies toward shiny objects. Basically, domesticated fruit is often the opposite of a genuine, wild fruit or veggie. Some people argue the genetic modification of human food supply is really dangerous, but others think it’s no big deal. Seriously, who wouldn’t want to eat a strawberry the size of an apple? The comparisons may be a bit alarming, but remember that when left in the wild all sorts of weird fruit can grow.

Genetically Engineered Bananas: Frankenfruit or Life-Saving Miracle?


The next “super food” may not be an exotic berry or seed-it may the humble banana, thanks to new advancements in genetics that allow farmers to boost fruits’ vitamin content.

Scientists recently announced they have modified bananas to up their vitamin A levels, something they say will save millions of malnourished people from dying or going blind from vitamin A deficiency (VAD). Since they are using a technique that doesn’t require any foreign genomes but rather just tweaking the existing banana DNA, the super banana is a “genetically engineered organism” (GEO) rather than the more controversial genetically modified organism (GMO). But are GEO fruits safe to eat?

While many well-nourished Americans are leery of foods that have been genetically altered in any way, this is the perfect example that the science can be beneficial, says Lance Batchelor, Ph.D, a molecular biologist in the genetics department of the University of Oklahoma School of Medicine.

“People need to get over their fear of GMOs,” Batchelor says. “Of course the anti-GMO activists will organize against it. But their rhetoric is at odds with an overwhelming scientific consensus involving every major scientific organization in the world based on hundreds of studies,” he says. Indeed, the FDA has repeatedly said genetically engineered foods are safe. This becomes especially important when talking about the millions of undernourished or starving people in the world.

Worldwide, VAD is responsible for an estimated 500,000 cases of irreversible blindness and up to 2 million deaths each year, with pregnant women and children being the hardest hit-a fact made even sadder because VAD is one of the most easily cured illnesses, needing only a simple vitamin supplement. “Good science can make a massive difference here by enriching staple crops such as Ugandan bananas with pro-vitamin A and providing poor and subsistence-farming populations with nutritionally rewarding food,” the project leader, professor James Dale from Australia’s Queensland University of Technology, told AFP.

RELATED: 8 Surprising Sources of Nutrients

The enriched bananas are similar to the development of Golden Rice two decades ago when normal white rice was genetically modified to have 23 times more alpha- and beta- carotene-the precursors to Vitamin A-and distributed to the poor in several Asian countries. While it’s not without controversy, the project has widely been considered a success with estimates that it saves about 1 million children a year.

Batchelor points out that it takes only a small amount of the vitamin A precursor-for instance just one enriched banana or 1/2 cup Golden Rice a day-to save lives, and by infusing other native crops, including plantains and other fruits, the potential to save lives is huge. He adds that this isn’t the only instance of Superman plants, citing a project he worked on that put a Norwalk virus vaccine into a plant, allowing poor countries that could not afford to make large amounts of the vaccine to be able to grow it.

In the meantime, the super banana is set to start clinical trials in the U.S. with the hopes of distributing it to African growers by 2020. The only visible change is that the flesh of the banana is more orange than white.

What do you think about GEO fruits? Sound off in the comments below or tweet @Shape_Magazine!

  • By Charlotte Hilton Andersen

They have ever wondered how a banana tree reproduces if it doesn’t contain any seeds? Well, if you ever come across a banana tree growing in the wild, then chances are that these bananas will probably have seeds. The seeds make up most of the fruit and making the flesh hard to eat.

The bananas that we normally encounter are mostly of the Cavendish variety. They are seedless triploids that do not form mature seeds. The little black dots running through the middle of the banana are the immature seeds.

Commercial banana trees are generally reproduced by using banana pups instead of seeds. A banana tree forms rhizomes, which develop into a little tree/pup that can be removed and planted elsewhere. Every new banana plant has to be manually planted using a piece of existing banana roots.

Every Cavendish banana is the same. They are clones of a single banana. This homogeneity of species is very risky. If a disease infects the Cavendish, all could be affected very quickly. This has happened before!

Back to wild Bananas – Banana before GMO

Bananas were domesticated over 7,000 years ago. Wild bananas usually contain big, hard seeds and have a little amount of flesh. They have been selectively bred to have tiny, non-fertile seeds. Without using selective breeding, bananas would have been almost inedible!

Are GMO bananas the next “superfood”?

Scientists from the Queensland University of Technology have created bio-fortified bananas. These bananas have higher levels of Vitamin A. They are created using a technique that uses the existing banana DNA. So, it is knowns as a “genetically engineered organism” (GEO) rather than the more controversially named genetically modified organism (GMO). Visually, the only difference is that the flesh looks more orange-colored than white. But why is there a need for a ‘super banana’?

To prevent Vitamin A deficiency (VAD) induced blindness and death among the millions of malnourished people. VAD is responsible for an estimated 500,000 cases of blindness and up to 2 million deaths each year worldwide. Young children and pregnant women are more likely to be affected by it. This is especially devastating because VAD is one of the most easily cured illnesses, and is treated with a simple vitamin supplement.

“Good science can make a massive difference here by enriching staple crops such as Ugandan bananas with pro-vitamin A and providing poor and subsistence-farming populations with nutritionally rewarding food,” said the project leader, Professor James Dale.

The ‘super banana’ is set to start clinical trials in the U.S. soon. Scientists hope to start distributing it to African growers by 2020.

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Yes, we have no GMO bananas. For now.


DES MOINES — A plan to have Iowa State University students eat genetically modified bananas has been delayed, apparently because of issues in shipping the fruit.

The bananas, created by an Australian scientist, contain a gene that is supposed to help people living in Africa produce vitamin A. Proponents say the gene came from a different type of banana and is safe to eat. But opponents contend the trial could expose volunteers to unknown dangers.

An ISU scientist had planned to feed the bananas to a dozen students during last fall’s semester. But that didn’t happen, a university spokeswoman confirmed last month. The spokeswoman said she didn’t know why the trial was delayed or when or whether it would resume.

James Dale, the Australian scientist who developed the bananas, said in an e-mail to The Des Moines Register this weekend that he still hopes to complete the trial by midyear.

“Importantly, the nutrition study will go forward, but not until all of us are satisfied that the banana material meets quality standards,” he wrote. “As you might imagine, given how you see bananas ripen in your own home, it has been a challenge shipping bananas from Australia to the U.S. and having them arrive in good condition.”

Iowa State researchers sent an e-mail to students last summer seeking a dozen female volunteers for the study. Food science professor Wendy White said then that the volunteers would be paid $900 to eat the equivalent of three bananas each as part of a short-term, prescribed diet. Just one of the bananas would be the genetically modified type. Blood tests would be used to determine the body’s reaction.

White said more than 500 students responded to the query, and 12 were selected.

The proposed trial has become a prominent topic in the long-running debate over genetically modified foods. Many scientists say such plants can safely include important nutrients, pest-prevention qualities or other attributes. But skeptics worry that genetically modified foods could be dangerous and uncontrollable, and they often portray the supporters as trying to quietly slip the products into public consumption.

Last month, the group African Centre for Biosafety decried the plan to eventually ship the genetically modified bananas to Uganda and other African countries. “Just because the GM banana has been developed in Australia and is being tested in the U.S. does not make it super!” Ugandan activist Bridget Mugambe wrote in a news release. “Ugandans know what is super because we have been eating homegrown GM-free bananas for centuries. This GM banana is an insult to our food, to our culture, to us a nation, and we strongly condemn it.”

The group’s director, Mariam Mayet of South Africa, said last week that she was unsure what to make of the delay in the trial or of Iowa State’s lack of response to an open letter her group sent about the matter.

“How are we to interpret this silence? Disregard and disrespect? Dismissal perhaps?” Mayet wrote in an email to the Register. “… We would have expected not only a response, but greater transparency on the part of Iowa State — a willingness to share information and relevant and important bio-safety data pertaining to the trials.”

She said she was puzzled by the claim that bananas are hard to transport, given how routinely they are shipped to grocery stores every day.

White said the goal of her research is to help people in Africa increase their production of vitamin A. “In Uganda and other African countries, vitamin A deficiency is a major contributor to deaths in childhood from infectious diseases,” she wrote in a statement released by the university in July. “Wouldn’t it be great if these bananas could prevent preschool kids from dying from diarrhea, malaria or measles?”

The scientist said the new type of banana includes a gene taken from another banana species, which naturally produces large amounts of beta-carotene. When people eat beta-carotene, their bodies turn it into vitamin A.

Residents of Uganda and nearby countries don’t favor the type of sweet banana that naturally carries the extra beta-carotene, White said. So researchers have put the gene into a less-sweet type of banana that east Africans often use in cooking. White added that the new banana has no seeds, so there is no danger that the genetically modified plant would escape into nature.

Dale said Iowa State was chosen to conduct the trial because no independent Australian lab was available to do the work and analyze the results.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is supporting the project financially.

Jim Lorenzen, a senior program officer for the Gates Foundation, said the foundation expects the research to continue. “The Gates Foundation continues to support the Banana21 project, which is helping find ways to tackle vitamin A deficiency. We look forward to seeing the Iowa trial move forward after the project has completed the necessary due diligence,” he wrote in a prepared statement sent to the Register.

Iowa State University has said that before the trial begins, details of how it would be conducted would be posted on a federal website, As of Monday, the trial was not registered there.

Smolina Marianna/

Bananas have reached such all-star status in the American diet that we now consume more of them than apples every year. Yet you’re probably used to seeing just one type of banana at your supermarket: the relatively bland yellow Cavendish. It has high yields, ships pretty well, and ripens slowly, making it appetizing to global food distributors.

Unfortunately, the popularity of the Cavendish might also be its downfall. A nasty and incurable fungus known as Tropical Race 4 (TR4) has spread in Cavendish-producing countries around the world, and it could be making its way straight toward banana heartland: Latin America, which produces 80 percent of the world’s exports.

For a paper published in November in the journal PLOS Pathogens, researchers confirmed that the version of TR4 afflicting bananas in different countries around the globe—including China, the Philippines, Jordan, Oman, and Australia—appears to come from a single clone. Ever since the fungus migrated from Asia and Australia into Africa and the Middle East starting in 2013, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization has urged countries to step up their quarantining of sick plants. Yet the Pathogens paper confirms that these quarantines, seemingly the only prevention against the spread of the fungus, which can live in soil for up to 50 years, have mostly failed. “It indicates pretty strongly that we’ve been moving this thing around,” says professor James Dale, one of the world’s experts on bananas and the director of the Queensland University of Technology’s Centre for Tropical Crops and Biocommodities. “It hasn’t just popped up out of the blue.”

The finding seems to confirm every banana grower’s worst fear: that the Cavendish will go down the same way our old favorite banana did. A century ago, Americans ate only Gros Michel bananas, said to have more complex flavor and a heartier composition than today’s Cavendish variety. Then, the monoculture fell prey to the fungal disease Tropical Race 1, or “Panama disease,” which wiped out the crop around the globe. There was nothing anything could do to stop it.

A farmer sells hill bananas in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. K.P. Sajith/NRCB/Musarama

So this time around, rather than attack the fungus, scientists have shifted their efforts into building a better banana to withstand it. Dale’s research team, funded in part by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, has spent 12 years working on TR4. Three years ago, it started a trial on two very promising ideas: (1) inserting a TR4-resistant gene from a different wild banana species from Malaysia and Indonesia, musa acuminata malaccensis, into the Cavendish to create a fungus-resistant version of the popular variety and (2) turning off a gene in the Cavendish that follows directions from the fungus to kill its own cells. Dale says it’s too early to discuss the details of the trials, but the team is “very encouraged by the results” of the experiment with the wild malaccensis banana—which means the genetically engineered fruit seems to have successfully resisted TR4.

GMO haters would not be too happy about a rejiggered banana plant. Dale’s introduction of a different GM experiment in 2014, a vitamin-A-fortified banana meant to help deliver nutrients to impoverished Africans, was met with harsh criticism from the likes of Indian environmental activist Vandana Shiva, Friends of the Earth Africa, and Food and Water Watch. “There is no consensus that GM crops are safe for human consumption,” they wrote in a letter to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Ruhuvia Chichi, or red bananas, grown on the Solomon Islands Gabriel Sachter-Smith/Musarama

Regardless of where you land on GMOs, there is another option to consider: We could stop relying on Cavendish bananas. If you’ve ever tasted one of the dozens of small, sweet bananas that grow in regions like Central America and Southeast Asia, you probably aren’t terribly impressed with the United States’ doughy supermarket varieties. Belgium’s Bioversity International estimates that there are at least 500, but possibly twice as many, banana cultivars in the world, and about 75 wild species. The Ruhuvia Chichi of the Solomon Islands is sunset red and cucumber shaped; Inabaniko bananas from the Philippines grow fused together, giving them the name “Praying Hands”; Micronesia’s orange-fleshed Fe’i bananas are rich in beta-carotene. Elsewhere, you can find the Lady Finger banana, the Señorita, the Pink French, and the Blue Java.

But Dale doubts the global food industry will suddenly switch to one of these tempting fruits. “To change over to another variety would be quite challenging, because the growers and shippers have really been set up to use around the world.” And he points out, “Even if you did find a replacement, that’s not to say that in 20 years another disease wouldn’t come along and knock it over.”

Why the banana crisis doesn’t make me stop worrying and love GMOs

Bananas ripening (and over-ripening) in bunches on the tree — which is actually a giant herbAs a life-long and still die-hard banana eater — locavoreanism be damned, they don’t grow well in the North Carolina mountains — I’ve been meaning to read the recent bunch of well-regarded books on the travails of Americans’ favorite breakfast fruit. (Emily Biuso’s 2008 Nation review piqued my appetite on this front.) The trouble with bananas is this: the export market is dominated by a single variety that’s being stalked by a ruinous blight.

Well, lucky me: bananas have gotten the New Yorker treatment. Rather than plow through books, you can now read Mike Peed’s recent, quite good and not-very-long piece ($ub req’d) on the looming banana crisis. The article has generated plenty of buzz in sustainable-food circles. Before I had a chance to read it, I saw a couple of list-serv postings arguing that it presents a compelling case for subjecting bananas to genetic modification.

The argument seems to go like this. Bananas are a massive source of nutrients and income in the global south. The one variety that has been deemed fit for the export market — the Cavendish, selected for bland flavor, portability, and monster yields — risks being wiped out by a fungus bearing the oddly frightful name of Tropical Race Four. If only geneticists could find a gene that resists Tropical Race Four and splice it into banana plants, the catastrophe could be averted. Moreover, unlike with, say, corn or alfalfa, there’s no chance of a GMO Cavendish spreading genetic material to wild or non-GMO bananas, because the Cavendish is sterile.

But I came away from Peed’s article with the opposite conclusion: I see no compelling case for GMO-izing bananas. First of all, such a project would probably have little effect on how people eat where bananas are actually grown. Peed reports that despite the yellow fruit’s ubiquity in U.S. and European supermarkets, 87 percent of bananas produced in the world are consumed right where they’re grown: in the hot parts of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. And guess what? Tropical Race Four doesn’t threaten this bounty.

Peed writes:

In Africa and Asia, villagers grow such heterogeneous mixes in their back yards that no one disease can imperil them. Tropical Race Four, scientists has existed in the soil for thousands of years. Banana companies needed only to enter Asia, as they did 20 years ago, and plant uniform fields of Cavendish in order to unleash the blight. A disease-resistant Cavendish would still mean a commercial monoculture, and who’s to say that one day Tropical Race Five won’t show up?

There’s a whole world of non-Cavendish bananas out there.Photo: RuzuzuIndeed, while we fixate on a single banana variety, people in the global south are growing and consuming no fewer than 1,000 varieties, Peed reports. The problem, it seems, isn’t some menacing super-fungus; rather, it’s an export market — dominated essentially by three companies — geared to monoculture. According to Peed, 99 percent of exported bananas are Cavendish.

Gros, point blank

Now, it’s true that the great bulk of those thousands of varieties aren’t well suited to long-haul travel followed by multi-day stays on supermarket shelves and kitchen counters. Another variety with similar export-friendly characteristics, the Gros Michael, once enjoyed the position now held by the Cavendish. By all accounts, it offered a more interesting, complex taste than the Cavendish; indeed, the banana rose to prominence as a U.S. breakfast staple based on the Gros Michael’s flavor. Why has it disappeared? Another fungus, Tropical Race One, feasted on vast monocultures of it, virtually wiping it out.

OK. What if we don’t genetically engineer Cavendishes to avoid the same fate — won’t we be inflicting great economic harm on Latin America?

In 2008, Peed reports, “Americans ate 7.6 billion pounds of Cavendish bananas, virtually all of them imported from Latin America.” But even here, the argument quickly crumbles. According to the fruit trade magazine The Packer, three companies — Dole (formerly Standard Fruit), Chiquita (formerly United Fruit), and Del Monte own 85 percent of the U.S. banana market. So profits generated from the trade revert to these companies’ shareholders, not to people in the banana belt.

What about jobs? The record of U.S. fruit companies operating in Latin America is mostly atrocious. Here’s how Peed describes the rise to dominance of United Fruit, precursor to today’s Chiquita:

In converting a tropical fruit into a global commodity, United Fruit amassed land across Latin America, from Guatemala to Colombia, replacing virgin jungle with vast tracts of Gros Michaels. Poorly compensated workers battling malaria, dengue fever, tarantulas, pythons, and jaguars, constructed miles of railroad tracks, telecommunications lines, and irrigation canals. By the 1960s, United Fruit controlled nearly 700 million acres of land.

To see what kind of corporate citizen United Fruit was, read New York Times correspondent Stephen Kinser’s classic book Bitter Fruit, or that famous brutally realistic (not so magical realist) section of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novel One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Banana republic still rules

And now? From what I can tell, the time-honored tradition of abusing workers on banana plantation thrives. Just this past December, the International Labor Rights Forum highlighted the five global companies (PDF) that most suppressed worker’s rights to organize in 2010. All three U.S. banana giants — Dole, Chiquita, and Del Monte — made the list.

Here’s the IRLF on Chiquita:

Chiquita’s subsidiary in Guatemala, Cobigua, has been using a combination of threats and intimidation to repress its banana farm workers for years. In fact, the Guatemalan banana unions have records of Cobigua’s use of blackmail dating back to 2003. The unions have stated that in the past12 years only two fair and valid collective bargaining agreements have been reached between the workers and Cobigua manage- ment. Since 2007, 43 union members and leaders have been killed in Guatemala for their affiliation.

And Dole:

In Colombia, the country considered the most dangerous for union organizing, Dole stands accused of making regular payments for at least a decade to the paramilitary United Self-Defense Forced of Colombia (AUC) to intimidate and attack banana workers and small farmers organizing for their rights. Several AUC commanders have come forward stating that they re-ceived payments from Dole, as well as other multinational corporations. A lawsuit was filed in Califo
rnia on behalf of 51 men who were allegedly murdered by the AUC for union organizing or attempting to prevent Dole from taking their land.

This is the industry I’m supposed to want to save through genetic modification? The banana-export industry doesn’t feed the people in the areas in which it operates, and treats its workers like dirt. I’ll continue to eat Fair Trade and organic bananas as long as supplies last, and I hope that an export-friendly variety that grows in polycultures can be found to replace the Cavendish being grown by Fair Trade, locally owned producers.

But when the big foot of the banana industry hits the peel of its self-generated fungus problem, I hope the beast topples — and doesn’t get propped up by a genetic engineering crutch.

Transgenic Cavendish bananas survived Panama disease in a field trial in Australia.

Queensland University of Technology

A field trial in Australia has shown that genetically modified banana trees can resist the deadly fungus that causes Panama disease, which has devastated banana crops in Asia, Africa, and Australia and is a major threat for banana growers in the Americas. The transgenic plants might reach some farmers in as few as 5 years, but it’s unclear whether consumers will bite. The work may encourage plant breeders using traditional techniques to create resistant varieties.

Bananas, one of the world’s most popular fruits, are a staple for more than 400 million people and a huge export business. In the 1950s, a soil-dwelling fungus destroyed Latin American crops of the most popular variety at the time, Gros Michel; it was replaced by a resistant variety, Cavendish, which now makes up more than 40% of harvests worldwide. In the 1990s, the Cavendish’s own nemesis surfaced in Southeast Asia: a related fungus called Fusarium wilt tropical race 4 (TR4).

Fungicides can’t control TR4; disinfecting boots and farm tools helps, but not enough. TR4 was detected in the Middle East in 2012 and appeared in Mozambique a year later. It has reached all banana-growing regions of China and was confirmed in Laos and Vietnam this year. Only the Americas have been spared so far. “This is an extremely important crop with major problems,” says study co-author Gert Kema, a plant pathologist and banana breeder at Wageningen University & Research in the Netherlands.

Biotechnologist James Dale and colleagues at Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia, cloned a resistance gene named RGA2 from a type of wild banana that’s impervious to TR4 and inserted it into the Cavendish, creating six lines with varying numbers of RGA2 copies. They also created Cavendish lines with Ced9, a nematode gene known to confer resistance to many kinds of plant-killing fungi.

The bananas were given a resistance gene from either a wild relative or a nematode.

Queensland University of Technology

In 2012, the researchers planted their transgenic bananas, along with unmodified controls, at a farm about 40 kilometers southeast of Darwin, Australia, where Panama disease arrived 20 years ago. To be doubly sure the plants would be exposed to TR4, the researchers buried infected material near each plant. In the 3-year trial, 67% to 100% of control banana plants died or had yellow, wilting leaves and rotting trunks. But several transformed lines did well, with about 80% of plants remaining symptomless, and two lines—one outfitted with RGA2, the other with Ced9—were completely invulnerable, the team reported online 14 November in Nature Communications. The resistance genes did not reduce the size of banana bunches.

“This resistance is outstanding and a cause for optimism,” says Randy Ploetz, a plant pathologist at the University of Florida in Homestead who was not involved in the study. But Agustin Molina, a plant pathologist affiliated with Bioversity International, a nonprofit agricultural biodiversity organization, who is based in Los Baños, Philippines, is skeptical about the appeal of transgenic bananas: “The problem is that current markets are not receptive.”

This is an extremely important crop with major problems.

There are other options, he says. Small-scale farmers often grow a range of non-Cavendish banana varieties for local consumption that can tolerate or resist TR4. Many larger farms in the Philippines, where TR4 arrived in 2000, have learned to prevent its spread and have begun planting disease-tolerant varieties of Cavendish. Though these may be of lower quality and can take longer to mature, “Our banana industry is still growing,” Molina says.

Miguel Dita, a plant pathologist with the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation in Jaguariúna, says it’s important to look for other replacements, including varieties other than Cavendish. “There are many opportunities to diversify the industry with different bananas, including more nutritious and better-tasting ones.”

Dale and his colleagues are pressing ahead with a second field trial, including new lines. “We’ll tick all the boxes on quality and prepare for deregulation,” he says. “We now have at least one solution for continuing Cavendish as the world’s most important banana.”

miniPCR GMO Detection Lab – Heart-Shaped Bananas


NEW FORMULATION – Easy DNA Extraction. No Beads!
Fast and robust PCR-based GMO detection. In a simple 3-step experimental protocol your will amplify genetically engineered elements from foods and plant tissues. Engage in a real-world biotechnology application relevant to agriculture, environmental science, and the food industry.

You can now foster evidence-based debate around GMOs through an engaging, hands-on biotech experiment. Humans have been modifying plants since the dawn of civilization through the domestication of crops including rice, wheat, and maize, among others. Today, modern biotechnology and genetic engineering allow scientists and breeders to confer very specific traits rapidly by introducing particular genes directly into plants. Society is still weighing the benefits and potential risks of agricultural biotechnology. This miniPCR Learning Lab™ aims to foster evidence-based debate on genetically engineered plants (also referred to as GMOs).

This miniPCR Learning Lab™ utilizes the following molecular techniques:

  • Genomic DNA extraction from foods and plant tissues
  • PCR (polymerase chain reaction) amplification of transgenes
  • DNA Gel electrophoresis, staining, and visualization
  • Highlights real-world applications of molecular biology in agriculture and the food industry.

The miniPCR GMO Detection Lab kit contains reagents for 8 lab groups of 4 students:

  • DNA-EZ™ DNA Extraction System: Lysis and Neutralization Solutions
  • 5X EZ PCR Master Mix, Load-Ready™
  • GMO Lab Primer Mix
  • 2 control DNA samples (GMO and non-GMO)
  • 100 bp DNA ladder

Please note:

  • These reagents require frozen storage.
  • Microtubes and PCR tubes, and electrophoresis reagents sold separately (or select the option above for Lab Companion Kit add-on)

Free miniPCR Learning Lab™ downloads:

Are bananas genetically modified?

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