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New Zealand scientists and growers try to ‘build a better banana’

In New Zealand, bananas are among the favourite fruits, with more than $220 million worth imported there from countries like Ecuador, the Philippines, Mexico and Panama each year.

New Zealand-grown bananas are rarely available outside a few farmers' markets. But a partnership between AgResearch scientists and Māori growers in Gisborne and Northland is looking to change that. The project is using DNA testing and lab-grown plants to identify the best variety to grow in New Zealand's climate and quickly begin testing crops.

Palmerston North-based AgResearch scientist Jane Mullaney said the test crops would be ready for harvest mid-next year. Kiwi-produced bananas would always be more expensive than the imported competition, she said.

But they had two advantages – they're more flavoursome than the bananas most Kiwis were familiar with, and could be grown spray and chemical-free because the tropical parasites that thrive on bananas weren't present in New Zealand.

Supermarket bananas were of a variety that suited being shipped all over the world, because they didn't bruise easily, but were also one of the blandest tasting. Mullaney said the varieties her team was helping test had stronger banana taste, with a hint of flavour similar to other fruits that depended on the variety. “For example, there's one with a bit of an apple taste and there's an apricot one that tastes very nice.”

The last test crops in Northland and Gisborne proved popular with the local community, she said. "They often sold out before the growers can even take them to the farmers' market because so many people are calling up the farms to order them.”

The trials have grown out of a Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment-funded project that brought the scientists and Gisborne-based growers Tai Pukenga together. The two-year project's goal was to develop a new commercial opportunity for Māori, and strengthen links between iwi and the wider community.


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