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Northern Territory Scientists Are Making the Banana Australians Deserve

Like all good things it's going to take cloning, mutation, and a bit of random luck.
February 23, 2015, 11:58pm

Image by Ben Thomson

Australians love bananas. I don't even need to link you to an article backing up that statement, because everyone knows it's true and that bananas are delicious. In fact we love them so much the Northern Territory government has created a new $600,000 biosecurity and veterinary lab to develop the banana they feel Australians deserve.

Locally we eat cavendish bananas—they're the ones piled high in your supermarket—and occasionally lady fingers if we're feeling fancy or at a parent's house. Thanks to our stringent quarantine laws we also have comparatively few problems with pests, which means our fruit is treated with less pesticides than other countries. But it's not a total banana paradise, as growers across Queensland Northern Territory do battle with Banana Freckle, Panama disease, as well as the small problem of cyclones.

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But despite our national love for bananas, our fruit just doesn't fare well on the flavour scale. Bob Williams, the Director of Plant Industries at the Northern Territory Department of Primary Industries and Fisheries explains, "To be quite truthful, cavendish is a terrible tasting banana compared to what's in Indonesia, the Philippines, and PNG". But on the bright side Bob adds, "The intention of the national banana industry is to get these other good tasting bananas into Australia."

Unfortunately, due to our aforementioned quarantine laws, bringing in plants from other countries riddled with pests is a huge ass ache. But this could get much easier following a Taiwanese team's development of a way to clone their delicious banana varieties. Cloning allows them to grow a very clean fruit with no viruses, allowing for easier importation overseas. Australia, with our fancy new lab, is working with the Taiwanese team to not only bring in the clean plants, but also expand on their work.

Bob explains that taking the cloning technique further means playing with the plant's basic qualities. This is achieved by scientists putting a specimen in a culture and mutating it with chemicals or by irradiating it for 15 seconds. Of the 2000 plants they've tried the process on, Bob reports that 15 turned out pretty good. "They ate well, and they had disease resistance" he said.

The obvious application of this experimentation is to give us sweeter, more delicious fruit. But a cloned, cleaner, more palatable product also allows Australian farmers to compete better internationally. According to Bob, the Taiwanese are already seeing this with their sweeter product, which is now testing and selling better in the Japanese market.

Mutations may also allow the plants to thrive outside of their usual environments of Queensland and the Northern Territory. Bananas have always been unlucky in the sense that they grow in regions that are intermittently battered by tropical cyclones. But by experimenting with mutations there is a strong possibility they'll be able to cultivate hardier plants that can be farmed in northern Western Australia. This removes the risk of losing a year's worth of farming in a single night of storms.

Last but not least, the ability to tackle Australia's pest issues in a petri-dish could lead to a reduction of extensive labour practises later, like disease management—resulting in a cheaper fruit for consumers. So next time you're eating a mealy, bland banana don't feel totally hopeless. You're just years away from the sweeter, disease-free, mutated, cloned, taiwanese-bred, super fruit of your dreams.

Follow Wendy on Twitter: @Wendywends