Belgian researchers test bananas in growth container

There is a place in Leuven, Belgium, where since a few weeks ago, the climate of the African highlands can be found - in a container at the Bioscience Engineering Faculty. Scientists are going to do a four-year study on how well different banana plants grow in this climate.

You could not tell by looking at what is on offer at supermarkets on any given day, but there are more than 1 500 different types of banana plants in the world. Leuven has a databank with cuttings of all these varieties. Researchers now want to know how each kind will fare in the African highlands climate. This type of climate is characterised by 'cold' nights and too little rain for the conventional banana plant. When the study is concluded, the researchers want to be able to advise African farmers about which types of bananas would be best suited for their region.

In order to carry out this research, scientists teamed up with Belgian agricultural company, Urban Crop Solutions. This company builds so-called 'growth containers' that are used to cultivate plants in ideal conditions. Sebastien Carpentier, the driving force behind the project, says, "For the next four years, we will re-create the climate of the African highlands in the container at Leuven University. We will grow 18 cuttings of each type of banana per eight-week cycle.There is room for 504 cutting in the container; so we can grow 20 varieties per cycle. We will closely monitor how each cutting reacts. After 75 cycles, we will have tested all 1 500 varieties."

This research will take place as part of the European COST project. Research institutions from 28 European countries are going to 'phenotype' the different plants. This means they will test how several varieties of a particular crop fare under specific conditions. The project aims to map 'climate-smart' varieties - those that thrive in specific conditions. "Climate change is a major challenge for crop cultivation. The information generated by the COST project will enable farmers to switch between different varieties of the same crop quickly. In this way, they will be able to keep their yield up to standard", explains bio-engineer, Sebastien Carpentier.

A highland banana?
The researchers, supported the Belgian Development Agency, wants to find the ideal banana plant for farmers in the African highlands. Carpentier: "At the moment, these farmers do not regard bananas as a profitable crop. The plants are often seen just growing in back gardens. There are also not enough resources available to invest in these plants. We want to make farmers more aware of how relatively easy it is to grow this food source. We also want to be able to recommend a few varieties that will render a maximum yield in the climatic conditions of the area in which they live."

The researchers are also deliberately not choosing to proclaim only one variety as the 'African highland banana'. "We will rank the 1 500 kinds and will recommend a dozen-or-so varieties to the farmers. We want to take the changing climate into consideration. If it gets a little hotter or wetter, another variety will fare better. It will compensate for the one kind that is bearing fewer fruits at that moment."

Climate-smart bananas
Currently, banana growers create ideal conditions in which to grow the small, elongated, yellow bananas which we all know. This is mainly done by giving the plants a lot of water. "Climate change will make this unfeasible", says Carpentier. "Our long-term goal is to find the most-suited bananas for each type of climate. In this way, we want to introduce a whole range of 'climate-smart' bananas."

Source: Leuven University

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