Viet Nam News
Bye bye banana? Hopefully not in Việt Nam
By Ruth Sinai
In late 2015, scientific publications and mainstream media sources reported alarming news for the 400 million people in the world who depend on bananas for their basic sustenance, as well as the hundreds of millions of others who love the mushy texture and sweet taste of this tropical fruit.
The news was best captured in the alliterative headline of a Washington Post report that read “Bye Bye Banana”.
It was the latest episode in an agricultural saga that began with the extinction of the world’s most popular banana some 60 years ago, and the looming threat currently faced by the world’s banana crop from a more resilient version of the same disease.
The fungus, known as Panama Disease, is believed to originate from Australia in the 1800s, and it virtually wiped out the Gros Michel banana in the mid-1950s and 60s. Some 99 per cent of today’s market – dominated by brands like Chiquita and Monsanto – consists of its successor, the Cavendish banana, which is exactly why it is vulnerable to the same kind of deadly fate that befell the Gros Michel.
“You basically have only one kind of banana on the market, what is known as a monoculture. There was no genetic variety with the Gros Michel, and that’s why it disappeared. We’re afraid the same could happen to the Cavendish. We have to develop a species that is resistant,” explains Dr Ofir Meir, chief technology officer at Tropic Biosciences, a UK-based start-up founded last year to develop high-yielding and disease-tolerant commercial varieties of crops, specifically in the US$50 billion global coffee and banana industries.
Meir, with experience in R&D at seed giant Monsanto, and his colleagues, including the former head of plant R&D at Nestlé, are hoping to pioneer the application of their innovative genomic project in Việt Nam, a major grower of both coffee and bananas.
“We started thinking where would be a good target market to spearhead our technology,” says the company’s CEO Gilad Gershon, a biotech entrepreneur and retired major in the Israeli navy. “In a way, it was a no-brainer. Việt Nam is the second largest producer of Robusta coffee in the world (after Brazil), and the Cavendish bananas actually originated in Việt Nam.”
Splicing and dicing
What Tropic Biosciences is doing is known as genetic editing, the latest frontier in the world of genomic science, which holds tremendous promise for treating human and plant-based disease.
While still in its infancy, this latest chapter in science-nonfiction is a technique used to modify DNA with extreme precision. Unlike the process of genetically modified organisms (GMO), which involves introducing foreign genetic matter into organisms to modify their DNA, genetic editing makes cuts to specific DNA sequences in a plant or human cell, using enzymes called “engineered nucleases”.
Genome editing can be used to add, remove, or alter DNA in the genome and thus change the characteristics of a cell.
“To my understanding, genetic editing is a modern technology for new varieties promising high yields, high quality and tolerance or resistance to drought, particularly for coffee which is the main cash crop in Việt Nam,” says Trương Hồng who heads the Western Highlands Agro-forestry Scientific and Technical Institute (WASI).
Hồng, who met with the Tropic Biosciences team at the institute in Đắk Lắk Province earlier this month, said it was his first introduction to the world of genetic editing. “I would be very happy to work with them on problems faced by coffee growers, such as nematode causing root rot disease and the effects of drought in the dry season. I think growers will also like this new approach.”
The company is currently developing several prototypes of products at its labs in Norwich, which were presented to Hồng and his team, most notably high-yield and low-caffeine varieties of Robusta coffee.
“We want to involve the growers in the research and development stage because we want to be sure of obtaining the best results,” says Gershon.
The R&D team also met in Hà Nội with the Agriculture Genetics Institute to introduce the technology and their plans.
“We are happy to explore the different alternatives for collaboration with local research institutions,” says Gershon. “One interesting candidate is AGI which has shown real interest in such collaboration.”
The growers with whom they met appear enthusiastic about testing the proposed coffee products.
“We aim to come back in a few months and choose one or two leading growers to run the pilots with,” says Gershon.
“We’re hoping to introduce these species here in cooperation with the institute and others,” he adds. “Everyone we met seems to want to try, to do. You talk to people and you see their eyes shining. They’re go-getters.”
The Government, scientists and growers are indeed thirsty for this kind of innovation in both coffee and banana growing, to enhance sustainable exports – 94 per cent of the coffee grown is exported — and to build up expertise in this highly competitive, burgeoning field of genetic editing.
According to Nguyễn Mạnh Dũng of the Department of Processing and Trade for Agro-Forestry-Fisheries Products and Salt Production, although Việt Nam produces about 1.4 million tonnes of bananas annually, it cannot satisfy all its export demand.
Việt Nam’s preservation technologies have yet to meet international requirements, making it impossible to always keep the fruit looking good. Thus, relatively few Vietnamese products have been licensed to penetrate high-end markets.
"In the long term, studies and research on banana cultivation have to focus on generating banana varieties that are high-yield, high quality, are of better appearance and are also resistant to several dangerous diseases," Dũng tells Việt Nam News.
Banana growers with whom the team met along with Phạm Năng Thành, the head of 3T, one of the country’s largest banana exporters, appeared excited, the visitors say.
The enticing horizon being offered by the genetic editing technique would also extend the green phase of the bananas, so that the fruit could be transported and stored for longer periods before ripening for sale.
The developers promise that the hot-out-the-lab prototype would not only protect bananas from the dreaded Panama Disease, it would also make them resistant to Black Sigatoka, a disease that damages the plant leaves and requires extensive use of fungicide to control. The resistant species would thus reduce losses and costs to growers and protect their health. Tropic Biosciences argues that this could result in a saving of $4-10 per tree annually on fungicides, translating to savings of as much as 25 per cent, not to mention a cleaner environment.
Growers could then use some of the savings to buy the disease-resistant, genetically edited plants, with the proprietary traits developed by the company.
The same business model would apply to the coffee crops, with the company promising that the new species would increase coffee extraction yields by between 5 and 15 per cent, reduce disease that results in annual losses of as much as 15 per cent of the coffee crop – and improve taste.
“We started trying to develop a higher-performing plant. If you reduce the need for chemicals and enable more delicate cultivation, the taste also improves,” says plant scientist Meir.
The gene editing community, which conducts much of its work under a tight shield of secrecy for fear its methods will leak, is careful to stress that its output is not the highly controversial engineering known as GMO.
“Although there was no proof of any health threat from that, people felt uncomfortable about GMO because it introduced foreign DNA and cross-cropped species, so that regulators in different countries greatly limited its use,” Gershon explains.
Gene editing appears more palatable, although the Food and Drug Administration is still conducting a review of its possible impacts. While bio-ethicists warn of slippery slopes of interfering with DNA, for example to “edit” embryo genes, scientists are forging ahead in the labs and plantations. VNS