Bananas could replace potatoes in warming world

Bananas on the way to market from the Mount Kenya region Bananas could take the place of potatoes in some developing countries

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Climate change could lead to crops from the banana family becoming a critical food source for millions of people, a new report says.

Researchers from the CGIAR agricultural partnership say the fruit might replace potatoes in some developing countries.

Cassava and the little-known cowpea plant could be much more important food crops as temperatures rise.

People will have to adapt to new and varied menus as traditional crops struggle, say the authors.

Start Quote

When the farmers see the problems they are having with production, they really are willing to shift”

End Quote Bruce Campbell CCAFS

Responding to a request from the United Nations' committee on world food security, a group of experts in the field looked at the projected effects of climate change on 22 of the world's most important agricultural commodities.

Blooming bananas

They predict that the world's three biggest crops in terms of calories provided - maize, rice and wheat - will decrease in many developing countries.

They suggest that the potato, which grows best in cooler climates, could also suffer as temperatures increase and weather becomes more volatile.

The authors argue that these changes "could provide an opening for cultivating certain varieties of bananas" at higher altitudes, even in those places that currently grow potatoes.

Cassava Cassava could help meet food needs in South Asia

Dr Philip Thornton is one of those behind the report. He told BBC News that while bananas and plantains also have limiting factors, they may be a good substitute for potatoes in certain locations.

"It's not necessarily a silver bullet, but there may be places where as temperatures increase, bananas might be one option that small-holders could start to look at."

The report describes wheat as the world's most important plant-derived protein and calorie source.

But according to this research, wheat will face a difficult future in the developing world, where higher prices for cotton, maize and soybeans have pushed wheat to marginal land, making it more vulnerable to stresses induced by climate change.

One substitute, especially in South Asia, could be cassava - which is known to be tolerant to a range of climate stresses.

But how easy will it be to get people to adjust to new crops and new diets?

Bruce Campbell is programme director of the Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security research group (CCAFS) which co-ordinates work among leading institutions around the world. He told BBC News that the types of changes that will happen in the future have already happened in the past.

Protein under pressure

"Two decades ago there was almost no rice consumption in certain areas of Africa, now there is. People have changed because of the pricing: it's easier to get, it's easier to cook. I think those sort of shifts do occur and I think they will in future."

About bananas

  • There are hundreds of types of banana plants but not all actually produce fruit
  • They grow on plants that are giant herbs and are part of the Musaceae family
  • Plantains are starchy like a potato, not sweet like a regular banana
  • Organised banana plantations have been traced back to China in 200 AD
  • Alexander the Great brought them back from India after his conquest in 327 BC
  • Over the centuries they have been called banna, ghana and funana

Source: Dole

One of the big concerns among researchers is how to tackle the need for protein in the diet. Soybeans are one of the most common sources but are very susceptible to temperature changes.

The scientists say that the cowpea, which is known in sub-Saharan Africa as the "poor man's meat" is drought-tolerant and prefers warmer weather and could be a reasonable alternative to soya. The vines of the cowpea can also be used as a feed for livestock.

In some countries, including Nigeria and Niger, farmers have already moved away from cotton production to growing cowpeas.

There are also likely to be developments in animal protein sources says the report, including a shift to smaller livestock.

"This is an example of something that's happening already," said Dr Campbell. "There's been quite a shift from cattle keeping to goat keeping in southern Africa in face of droughts - when the farmers see the problems they are having with production, they really are willing to shift.

"Change is really possible. It's not just a crazy notion."


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  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    With respect to #4, if the (so called) "developed" countries could cut back on the culture of consumerism, and yes if we can all recognise that population growth (which includes developed countries having longer life spans!) can be seen as a threat if not managed, and we ALL play our part then perhaps we can learn to live on our planet. But not while the corporations are greedy for profits.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.


    "I seem to recall a few years ago, news headlines about how bananas would cease to exist in about 20 -25 years"

    I'm sure the article you read said bananas COULD cease to exist. If it did say 'would' that was bad reporting by the journalist - no scientist can predict the future like that.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    I think Matt McGrath might be the man from Del Monte...

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    @4.Pleb - oh dear, you don't really believe that rhetoric do you?

    We in the west have been having large families for thousands of years - how are we impacting on the worlds resources?

    Fact is, that 21 trillion $ has been hoarded by the "elite", and Asia/Africa is kept poor, by the "elite", through lack of education and opportunity.

    More education on renewables and proper farming is needed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    If anyone hasn't tried plantain, the non sweet banana variety that has to be cooked like a vegetable, I can confirm it is both tasty and very nutritious. Not too sure about cod and plantain, but for anything else try it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    People will have to adapt to new and varied menus as traditional crops struggle say the authors.

    LOL, reality is, is that canibalism may return to common menu if human excesses continue to increase unsustainable population & destroy food production land.

    Bananas require masses of water just to make 1 bannana & it probably takes 100+bananas to make 1 Matt McGrath

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    Looking into the future is a tough thing to do, fraught with unknowns. Most people have to live by what they know and hope for the best. Scientists attempt to control research funding and meeja of the narrative lost and disengaged the 5th estate. Communication on climate change needs to be greatly improved to engage with the 5th estate which is 7 billion not an elite of 200.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    I'm 100% sure that a couple of years ago I read that bananas would become extinct.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    "Bananas could be future staple"

    I'm willing to give it a go but I cant see it catching on. I wont be asking my colleagues in the office to pass me a stapler ever again!

    On a serious note, another day another pointless survey. Yawn.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    4.Pleb - "........and is gobbling up all of the world's resources."

    That statement alone shows your utter ignorance of the plight of those in the third world..... is the drastic under resourcing of tese countries that it is the problem.....because we in the West over comsume & waste vast quantities of resources.....

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    Well not here in the UK anyway, global warming will see UK temperature come more in line with other countries as northerly as us. The temp will drop considerably if global warming continues ( and it will), before rising again.
    Looks like potatoes it is.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    More pseudo scientists trying to get funding for their next pointless study by playing the global warming card.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    ....and this week's story, children, is about bananas replacing potatoes and wheat.

    Next week's story hasn't been invented yet but, as soon as the 'researchers' have made it up, the BBC will tell us about it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    Not really an earth shattering revelation this is it? I'm surprised they didn't mention plantains which are, on the whole, more like vegetables than bananas.
    Surely this is just a simple statement that says if the climate changes we'll just eat different foods!

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    I don't suppose the world's corporate masters give a damn about hunger or food supply issues in the developing world.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    It may be politically incorrect to say this but people in Asia and Africa need to stop having a dozen children per family. That is the major cause of poverty in these parts of the world. It's unsustainable in the long term and is gobbling up all of the world's resources.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    I seem to recall a few years ago, news headlines about how bananas would cease to exist in about 20 -25 years, due to a particular disease and the fact that banana plants are grown from cuttings - reduced genetic variation. So which is it?

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    How the researchers arrived at their conclusion:

    1) Bananas grow in hot places.

    2) The world is getting hotter.

    Therefore, people will eat more bananas. QED.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    Bananas as a staple food? Well, when you pay people in peanuts and treat them like monkeys, what other foods are they expected to eat?


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