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 139.

    If it's getting warmer in the UK it'll be interesting to see how much British Gas will ram up their prices by to offset the shortfall they'll receive on winter fuel bills.

  • rate this

    Comment number 138.

    Do they taste like chicken?

  • rate this

    Comment number 137.

    Thanks to global warming, in a few years we will all be banana republics.

  • rate this

    Comment number 136.

    There are scientists who claim future yields will rise due to increased CO2. Who to believe?

    As far as I know all scientists accept that increased Co2 improves plant growth BUT that only works for plants that are capable of coping with the temperature increase, if a plant dies, it doesn't grow more & others grown outside their optimum temperature/moisture range will have lower yields

  • rate this

    Comment number 135.

    126. Surly Tapster
    All current developed nations had high birth rates and high mortality rates. These countries became developed and the mortality rate and birth rates came down. Current under-developed countries have high birth rates and mortality rates...

    This isn't a massive coincidence. willful ignorance springs to mind, are you a politician?

  • rate this

    Comment number 134.

    Reading into this story i'm starting to believe this is less of a climate change problem and more a problem of farmers growing produce that sells for the highest price!
    Why grow a cheap affordable food when you can grow an expensive, profitable one?
    Climate change is just looking like a handy excuse especially when most intelligent people know its caused by solar flares and magnetic pole shifts!

  • rate this

    Comment number 133.

    @4. Pleb
    In some ways you are right. However, what is "actually gobbling up the world's resources" is the fact that as some countries 'develop' (e.g. China) a middle class emerges that want all the things that we in the West consider 'normal' i.e. meat for most meals, cups of coffee every day, flushing toilets etc.-we who live so extravagantly shouldn't point the finger at others who want the same

  • rate this

    Comment number 132.

    9 Minutes ago
    Fish and bananas from the chippy, it just doesn't sound right, and certainly wouldn't taste right

    You've never been to Scotland then, up there, they are years in front of the experts, even catching stray Mars bars & deep frying them. The world will eat anything, just cover it in chocolate & a bit of batter & deep fry it & bobs your uncle, but stay off his knee

  • rate this

    Comment number 131.

    The 'little known' cowpea plant is actually quite the USA they are known as 'black-eyed peas'. The genus has a number of members that are widely eaten throughout the world!

  • rate this

    Comment number 130.

    i think you live, laugh then die n made the most of what you have here like the generations pasted, why people have to moan about life? just make the most out of what youve got, but we all are the biggest enemy to this earth n i think we all have to realise its us and stop trying to past the blame and actully take in our responsibilities, i tell you now try and tell that to the generation to come.

  • rate this

    Comment number 129.


    Try staying on topic.....

    124.Weare Just Universaldust

    You miss the point & show no appriciation whatsoever of how fast climate change currently is for the scale of it we are facing......check the facts out, your gut reaction is not accurate.....

  • rate this

    Comment number 128.

    Thousands of real scientists do not think humans are having a measurable effect

    & a few million scientists think humans are having a measurable effect
    If you're playing a numbers game then for every (proper) single scientist the anti climate change mob can produce, the other side can produce about a 1000

  • rate this

    Comment number 127.

    Any country that has people starving whilst it's leaders live wealthily and purchase arms and create wars is an abomination in this day and age. You cannot say you have a progressive and rich country if your people are dying for want of food and medicine. We should have enough food to feed the world in these days of science & technology

  • rate this

    Comment number 126.

    @119 So you extrapolate from a small Northern European island 150 years ago to the entire swathe of the developing world today. That easy. Not what I call an evidence-based policy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 125.

    I keep hearing dire warnings of a fungal epedemic that is busy wiping out bananas and that they might even become extinct in the near future.

    Hopefully the report took that kind of thing into account.

  • rate this

    Comment number 124.


    So the famine which preceeded the plague happened slowly did it - answer - NO

    So the "little iceage" when Thames froze over crept up on us did it - answer - NO

    Evidence suggests there will be no 3/5/10 year warning, nature has an endemic habit of "surprise surprise" with huge lurches into extremes, it may swing one way but then the other, where it stops NO-ONE knows.

  • rate this

    Comment number 123.

    Fish and bananas from the chippy, it just doesn't sound right, and certainly wouldn't taste right!

    On a serious note, over-population is the problem, limit family size either by law or by reduced benefits, and you ease the problems we face almost instantly. if there were half as many people on the planet, we would have no problems with energy, food, wildlife destruction etc....

  • Comment number 122.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 121.

    49.RossJJ - "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."

    Correct me if I am wrong, but I though corn starch came sweet corn, hence the corn bit in it's name? I might be mistaken though?

  • rate this

    Comment number 120.

    Nature will respond to whatever is thrown at it and man will adjust accordingly.

    No need to be alarmed.


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