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 59.

    There is an underlying tone to the article which implies that indiginous people were ignorant that those green dangly things were edible. I'm fairly sure the issue is whether they are affordable and available.

  • rate this

    Comment number 58.

    4.Pleb & 20. sewrdna
    People do not restrict families because religious leaders and politicians persuade them to adopt different ways of thinking. Historically people in the developed world restricted their families because they knew their children were likely to reach adulthood & because they were educated enough to see it was in their interest to do so. Reduce population growth by development!

  • rate this

    Comment number 57.

    why are we paying scientists to come up with this garbage - minute changes in temperature will not prevent the growth of potatoes - the most significant problem/risk is over population - there are just too many of us

  • rate this

    Comment number 56.

    Banana plants are terrible for the environment. They are responsible for large parts of the rainforest dissapearing as humans clear lush areas to grow them. The soil is exhausted in a few years then they move on and cut more forest. What we need is less humans on the planet!

  • rate this

    Comment number 55.

    You would think that such a change would pass into being all nice & friendly. Reality is that such a change would be forced upon humans more likely as a consequence of massive other crop failures.
    There would be a time of change, where climate/rain combinations is just unsuitable for many current crops - mass hunger ensues & more likely than not - as per history repeats - plague conditions arrive

  • rate this

    Comment number 54.

    As long as GMO giant MonSatan doesn't use this as an excuse to genetically modify them. That being, there's other 'starches' such as sweet potatoes & yucca which grow in hot climes.

  • rate this

    Comment number 53.

    Ah, that's different. Replacing potatos isn't what I want but ok.

    But the headline said bananas could be new staple. I think I'll stick to the old steel ones. Clipping papers together with bananas sounds a bit messy (malignant fun if you have to send papers to utility companies tho).

  • rate this

    Comment number 52.

    Photo above could well be Uganda where mashed steamed plantain (banana) has been a staple for ages. There is nothing new in this, just that dieticians could have been doing more to promote the value of bananas, also for a long time past!

  • rate this

    Comment number 51.

    WHO pays for this rubbish?

    Another useless study costing money to come up with comments like 'bananas are the new staple',

    It was only 5 years ago the BBC was talking about the demise of the bananas due to fungus spreading throughout plantations and claiming they would be extinct in 30 years as it can only be cloned and resitance cannot be bred in them.

    What happens then?


  • rate this

    Comment number 50.

    Once again we get an article about future resource problems that manages to avoid mentioning population growth!

    What is it - is talking about population some sort of taboo?!

    Virtually every major issue we face - food, energy, environment, housing, etc - is directly related to population growth. Deal with that and many of our most pressing problems will be solved!

  • rate this

    Comment number 49.

    Reducing the amount of wheat production etc. will hopefully help the morbid obesity epidemic in the west with fewer corn starch syrups added to products.

  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    Why is it that developing countries never seem to develop?

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    People will talk of the Irish Banana Famine for millenia

  • Comment number 46.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 45.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    Well, if we keep breeding like rabbits maybe we'll all end up eating ------g lettuce.

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    "One should replace one thing by other thing" idea posted above but in my sense:
    "People should replace themselves in order to maintain the balance between consumption & production".
    "let suppose you've replaced food S with food T in order to complete demand BUT one day will come when you again have to replace food T by food U & onwards..." this isn't a good sol..BEST sol. is to less consumption"

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    Imagine all the people...............

    I hope some day you'll join us
    And the world will live as one

    Welcome to the new world banana republic
    Av a BANANA

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    Simple idea!! why don't people stop wasting the food all over the world and there won't be a shortage. The problem in the western world is that everything is so easily available that no one cares if it is used or gets wasted. The amount of food that gets wasted everyday is a disgrace.

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    ...but only in a very limited number of countries as there is little or no chance that enough bananas can be grown for substantial populations.

    Perhaps we in the west should consider stopping importing them if they are going to be needed more in the tropics?


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