Hundreds varieties of bananas preserved in Belgium

26/01/2017

Bananas are the world's most popular fruit. They are grown in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Belgium, however, is home to the largest collection of bananas in the world hosted at the university KU Leuven's Laboratory of Tropical Crop Improvement.

On 23 January 2017 our country will be celebrating the 30th anniversary of the banana genebank. It helps researchers and farmers across the world gain greater insights into banana cultivation. In fact, only one sort of banana is now exported: the Cavendish. “This is a pity, in Rony Swennen's opinion, head of the laboratory, as there are so many different varieties that taste far better. Why is that? Western consumers are rather fussy: bananas need to be a lovely yellow colour, have a sweet flavour, be a particular size, … In fact, bananas exist in all kinds of colours and formats. Such bananas are grown in the tropics by small-scale farmers. They use them for their own consumption, selling the rest on local markets.”

Each year, over 145 million tons of bananas are cultivated. Only 15% of these are exported. This means that no less than 85% of all bananas produced in the world are used locally. In Belgium, we each eat an annual quantity of around 8 kg of bananas. Our country is also the world's second largest importer and exporter of bananas.

The banana genebank in Leuven maintains 1,536 varieties of banana. Here, digital information is gathered on each variety and published on the internet, in order to encourage diversity and stimulate use of these plants to help ensure that the various types are not lost for future generations. Indeed, the banana is increasingly threatened with disease and deforestation. Professor Swennen explains the daily activities: “We are constantly receiving requests for new varieties via our website. We send off 5 samples of each type for free. In the 30 years that we have been in operation we have sent material to over 109 countries. Our clients include NGOs, universities, research institutions, and, of course, the farmers themselves. How are they sent? Either in plastic bags, or in small plastic pots with a screw top. We encourage partners to set up their own laboratories and establish local plant trading. It is usually private companies who continue to reproduce the material, and then sell it cheaply to the local farmers. So it's a long way from the classic case of subsidies.”

There are around 2,000 varieties available across the globe. The aim is to collect them all in Leuven and to refine the genetic maps of each different variety. Each cutting has a barcode. When this is scanned, all kinds of information appears regarding the identity and the plant's characteristics. The entire collection has also been frozen (using liquid nitrogen at a temperature of -196°C), in order to preserve the diversity eternally. Once defrosted, the small plants remain viable and can continue to grow.

Belgium has been researching bananas ever since the year 1910. The fact that there is a historical link between our country and Central Africa, plus KU Leuven's expertise in in vitro culture together with our country's stability means it is not such an illogical choice to house the collection in Belgium.

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