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Canarian bananas rely on research for their survival

Although not many growers have abandoned conventional growing techniques in favour of organic methods, around 1,000 (of more than 8,000) are now considering the possibility.

It is difficult to find a more clear example in the Canary Islands of an activity whose profitability, and continuity, relies as much on research as banana growing, which takes around 9,000 hectares (almost 20% of the arable land) spread between 10,000 plantations belonging to more than 8,000 producers, and which provides direct and indirect employments to around 20,000 people, according to the sector's estimations.

Despite being the main Canarian crop in terms of production (around 370,000 tonnes last year) and the most exported, the acreage has been reducing in recent years because growers are facing a series of issues: the competition with bananas from other origins, the escalating costs and the need to find a share in an increasingly difficult market, but researchers have come up with a solution. The technicians who have developed it estimate that between 15 and 20% of the producers are considering the implantation of organic production methods which have been tested in a handful of plantations, aimed at increasing the growers' income and ensure the sustainability of the activity.

Very few plantation owners have switched to organic production; it is a ridiculous percentage, according to the technician of the Coplaca group of cooperatives, Javier Cepero, who explains that organic production does not in itself guarantee greater profits. On the contrary, there is a very limited market in the Peninsula (main destination for Canarian bananas) and a very small one in Germany which is not very attractive due to the low prices of this same product imported from South America.

What is clear, both for Cepero and the scientific director of the Canarian Institute of Agricultural Research (ICIA), Manuel Caballero, is that the survival of Canarian bananas inevitably relies on differentiation, which is the base for consumers' trust. This is the only way to gain and maintain markets and requires "plenty of time and effort." Differentiation implies obtaining a tastier, more attractive fruit with the lowest possible content of chemicals. But that is not enough.

Costs are a problem given the reality of bananas from other origins being cheaper, so another objective is to reduce them. Water consumption has already decreased, as well as the use of fertilizers, which in La Palma's case has experienced a 50% reduction.

Another line of research focuses on the recycling of packaging residues and the use of cow and pig manure to reduce the activity's environmental impact.

But Cepero warns that 80% of the plantation owners are in their 60's and are more reluctant to change than the younger ones.

More natural enemies and fewer chemicals

Biomusa was born in response to the issues raised by Canarian growers: white flies, red palm weevils and composting. The ICIA took good note of the problems and opened several lines of research which ended up merging a few years later.

One of the main lines of research involves the use of natural enemies to fight pests instead of chemicals. Biologic control is slower, but more effective in the long term. While chemicals kill the pest in hours or a few days, they also kill insects that do not affect the plants, and whose presence may even be beneficial.

Biologic control, on the other hand, can take weeks or months; its full implantation lasts around six months and requires more supervision, but once it starts working, it destroys the pest forever, unlike chemicals.

It is a capital issue, because even if chemicals are preferred, there is a problem: 50% of those products have been banned by the EU in the past four years, and laboratories are not looking for substitutes because bananas are a smaller and less profitable market, warns Cepero.

Source: Eldia.es

Publication date: 5/9/2013


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