Breeding Better Bananas project team meets to take stock, track progress and plan

Photo by Random Institute on Unsplash

An international team of researchers that is revolutionizing banana breeding in Eastern Africa are this week (27‒29 May 2019) gathering in Mbarara, Uganda, to review progress and achievements made over the past 5 years under phase one of the Breeding Better Bananas project, and planning for future needs and activities.

The Breeding Better Bananas project, led and coordinated by the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) and working together with the National partners in Tanzania and Uganda, is focusing on breeding varieties that that are resistant to key pest and disease threats and which also meet users’ preferences and needs.

While millions of smallholder banana farmers in Tanzania and Uganda rely on banana as a staple food and as a major source of income, and the two countries producing over a half of all banana grown in Africa with an annual value of $4.3 billion, the farmers are producing a mere 9% of what is possible. This is largely attributed to attack by pests and diseases and use of local, low-yielding varieties.

“Bananas are immensely important in Uganda and the region but are being heavily attacked by pests and diseases. This project is enabling us to link with other breeding programs across the world, to exchange banana varieties, and use the best material in our breeding program. This is the first time this has happened on such a scale,” says Jerome Kubiriba, Head of the Banana Program, NARO who heads up the breeding activities in Uganda for the project.

The project is especially focused on the two most popular cooking bananas in the region—East Africa Highland banana (EAHB) also known as Matooke, and Mchare, which is grown mostly in Uganda and Tanzania. The major diseases it is addressing are Fusarium wilt, black leaf streak diseases (Sigatoka disease,) and banana bacterial wilt, while the key pests are the plant parasitic nematodes (microscopic worms) and banana weevils.

The project has seen over 200 Matooke hybrids further selected for yield evaluation in the field, with over 10,000 in the pipeline, while over 500 hybrid Mchare are currently under early evaluation in the field. In Tanzania, the team has seen the creation of the first-ever Mchare hybrid. Some of these hybrids are already being chosen by farmers in preference to traditional varieties.

Speeding up breeding of a sterile crop

“Banana is the most difficult crop to breed. Consequently, only a handful of banana breeding programs exist. Traditionally, national breeding programs guard their genetic resources with intense zeal. With a common goal to overcome challenges in breeding banana and to improve a staple food crop upon which millions depend, this patriotic protection has been set aside for the greater good, in what has developed into a demonstration of international harmony,” says Prof Rony Swennen, Lead Banana Breeder at IITA and the project’s team leader.

The researchers are working together, using advanced, cutting-edge techniques in the best laboratories across the world to address the challenges to banana breeding, improve efficiency, and reduce the time it takes to deliver much-needed, new, improved, disease- and pest-resistant varieties to farmers.

By investigating banana flowers, pollination has been boosted, increasing the numbers of seed produced. In the laboratory, the normal low germination rate of these seeds has been vastly improved.

“Our ability to greatly increase hybrid production and reduce the time required has substantially improved during our five-year phase. With our partners across the world, determining the genetic origin of our banana is fast being unraveled, aiding our ability to understand the genetic basis of resistance against our target pests and diseases. This includes the particularly devastating form of Banana Fusarium Wilt, which is threatening banana across the world. This platform is, therefore, helping banana production beyond the East African realm. Our program is having a truly global impact,” adds Rony Swennen.

This unique initiative brings together researchers from Tanzania, Uganda, and Australia and partners Belgium, Brazil, Czech Republic, India, Kenya, Malaysia, South Africa, Sweden, and the USA, to share their expertise, knowledge, and plant material towards improving this immensely important crop for the East African Region.

The project is also dedicated to building local capacity in banana breeding and to nurturing our next generation of banana researchers. Currently, there are 11 Ph.D. and 10 MSc students attached to the project, while technical training in advanced breeding techniques extends to all levels of staff across our partners. The project additionally facilitates the exchange of genetic plant material across countries, and even continents, in order that the best material for developing improved hybrids is used, establishing the foundations of a globally connected banana breeding system.

The regional breeding activities are being conducted at the Banana Breeding Programme of the National Agricultural Research Organization (NARO) at Kawanda and Sendusu, at regional Uganda research sites such as Mbarara in Uganda, and at the Nelson Mandela African Institution of Science and Technology (NM-AIST) in Arusha, Tanzania in close collaboration with the regional Tanzania Agriculture Research Institute (TARI) in the banana growing areas.

“Research and innovation are the engines of East and Central Africa countries’ progress and vital to addressing the pressing challenges facing smallholder farmers. The development of new, high-yielding, pest and disease-resistant hybrid banana is essential to reversing the low productivity that is plaguing our banana farmers. This project will surely help us increase our productivity levels, from 10 to 15 tons/ha/year to 60‒70 tons/ha/year”, says Dr. Mpoki Shimwela, National Coordinator of banana research in Tanzania.

The project is unearthing the genetic foundation and diversity of existing banana varieties using modern, cutting-edge scientific techniques to identify and better utilize sources of resistance to the major pests and diseases. This is being complemented by studies to understand the spread and damage caused by these pests and diseases, as well as to develop rapid diagnostic tools and faster screening mechanisms to quickly identify resistant varieties.

The project is now planning to extend the benefits of Breeding Better Bananas, by engaging with researchers to better evaluate postharvest quality as well as seed system networks, to ensure that the most nutritious resistant varieties are released and that farmers gain access to these best varieties as rapidly as possible.

This project is being conducted within the framework of the CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas. 

This blog was first published on Breeding Better Bananas