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Farmers in Kerala propagate diverse varieties of bananas through innovative means

A few banana farmers in Kerala are growing diverse varieties of bananas aiding in the conservation of traditional varieties. Studies have found that crop diversity ensures food security. Commercially grown banana varieties are propagated clonally, reducing their genetic diversity and making them susceptible to pests and diseases. Climate change is another threat. Scientists say conservation needs to be a combination of in-situ and ex-situ, since in-situ conservation is vulnerable to calamities and duplication. Arathi Menon explains with this comprehensive report

“Every district in Kerala has its favourite banana,” said Nishanth K., a 49-year-old banana farmer, from Kerala’s Wayanad District, who has over 250 varieties of bananas on his farm. “Wayanad and Kannur like mannan (a type of banana). Chenkadali (red banana of Cavendish variety) is very popular and culturally significant in Thiruvananthapuram and is sold there for a handsome Rs 80 a bunch, whereas in Wayanad, it fetches only one-fourth the price. Peyan, grown mostly in Tamil Nadu, is a favourite in Kollam District but not so much anywhere else,” he explained.

Nishanth’s farm is nothing short of a museum of bananas, showcasing rare varieties from across the globe. Some unusual but native varieties include perumpadali which bears fruit bunches that can grow up to five feet in size, krishnavazha with a black stem and leaves, and pachachingan which has fruits that remain green even after they ripen. There is also the stunningly red-leaved Siang Ruby from Thailand, Walking or Running Banana that propagates its suckers (saplings) at least five feet away from the main tree and the very curious looking Praying Hands from Philippines that has fruits that resemble two palms in prayer with each “hand” typically made up of six to seven individual fruits fused with each other.

Different varieties of harvested bananas on Nishanth’s farm where he grows about 250 varieties of the fruit.

Native to tropical Asia, banana is believed to have originated along the long stretch from India through Southeast Asia up to Northern Australia. The Portuguese who came to India in the 16th Century took it to South America where it thrived. All bananas that we see today are a cross between two banana varieties, Musa acuminata and Musa balbisiana, informed Dicto Jose M., assistant professor, Banana Research Station, Kerala Agricultural University. Nishanth developed a passion for banana cultivation as a child, learning the ropes from his teacher-farmer father on the family-owned farm in his hometown. “Whatever I know about farming, I learned from him. He learned from his father. We grew everything from paddy to vegetables, fruits and even cash crops like coffee and pepper,” Nishanth reminisced.

At Nishanth’s modest farm, bananas are intercropped with areca nuts. The two species share a symbiotic relationship and are ideal to be farmed together. “Areca nut provides just the right amount of shade bananas need and makes the most of the nutrition and excess moisture concentrated at the bottom of the banana trees,” Nishanth explained. Bananas demand only weekly supervision. Nishanth, a government employee, spends the weekends at the farm, primarily ensuring dried leaves and bark are removed from the tree as dried bark retains moisture on the stem which could eventually kill the tree.

Botany students take notes about banana plants at Nishanth’s farm in Wayanad.

For the sake of conservation and science
Banana farming in India is believed to be chemically intensive but that’s changing, said Nishanth. However, it’s nearly impossible to cultivate it organically. “Bananas are prone to many pests and diseases. I avoid chemicals on the soil as much as possible but I can’t totally avoid them,” shared Nishanth candidly. Climate change, too, is posing a challenge to farming in Kerala. “Kerala always followed an agricultural calendar where sowing, ploughing, harvesting, and every such farming activity was done in concurrence with the weather cycle. This has completely changed now with summers getting longer and the monsoon not setting in time. Farmers are often faced with uncertainties,” said Nishanth.

Though he nurtured an interest in banana farming as a child, Nishanth started looking at the genetic diversity of bananas seriously only in the last 12 years out of a love for “conservation and an interest in science.” His passion got the much needed impetus from an online group of banana farmers, a Facebook group with around 10,000 members named Vazha Gramam (banana village). Started by Vinod S. of Thiruvananthapuram who has over 500 varieties of bananas on his farm, it’s a collective of like-minded banana farmers from across the world. “From various parts of India, like Karnataka, West Bengal and Maharashtra, to those in Southeast Asian countries, many parts of Africa, etc.,” Vinod told Mongabay India over a phone call. Sharing of ideas, knowledge and plant suckers happen frequently between group members.

A handful of farmers in Kerala, like Nishanth, are trying to propagate and popularise diverse varieties of bananas through innovative means. Anticipating the loss of certain varieties due to various stressors, the director of a Kozhikode-based farmer producer organisation Niravu, Baburaj P. started an initiative called Banana Bank with support from NABARD (National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development) in 2022. Baburaj, who grows 125 varieties of bananas, proposed the idea to spread 15 Indian and foreign varieties of bananas to 200 farmers. The farmers were chosen based on a single criterion — their willingness to nurture the varieties. They were given five different bananas and access to a Whatsapp group of 25 technical resource persons trained at the Banana Research Institute, Kannara in Kerala and National Research Centre for Banana, Trichy in Tamil Nadu. “We also developed a software to track the suckers and their growth,” Baburaj said.

World leader in banana production
India leads in the production of bananas in the world with an annual average of 33 million tonnes of bananas (2021 estimate), 20 million tonnes more bananas per year than China which is second on the list with around 12 million tonnes. In India, Andhra Pradesh tops with an annual production of 5,839 thousand tonnes, followed by Maharashtra with 4,628 thousand tonnes. Despite the surge in banana production, India has just about 40 varieties of bananas being grown commercially. “Commercial viability of a banana variety is determined by factors like its yield, taste and shelf life. Some seeded varieties and small varieties of bananas are not preferred by consumers and hence, farmers,” Backiyarani S., principal scientist, International Council of Agricultural Research – National Research Centre for Banana (ICAR-NRCB) informed Mongabay India.

Studies have espoused the importance of genetic diversity in crops for food security in an increasingly warming world. Considering the unexpected and unknown biotic and abiotic threats like viruses and climate change, banana research centres have been focusing on the ex-situ preservation of banana germplasm. The ICAR-NRCB centre in Trichy facilitates the preservation of around 350 Indian and 112 foreign banana germplasm.

Nishanth K. started looking at the genetic diversity of bananas seriously only in the last 12 years out of a love for “conservation and an interest in science.” Scientists
say conservation needs to be a combination of in-situ and ex-situ that requires a collaboration between farmers and scientists.

Climate change, pests as threats to conservation
Commercially grown banana varieties are propagated clonally, reducing their genetic diversity and making them increasingly susceptible to pests and diseases. These pests and viruses can decimate the variety if it were to exploit a genetic weakness among the clones, as was demonstrated in the case of Gros Michel dessert variety that fell victim to a fungal disease and was almost wiped out from the world in the 1950s. Experts say that the less rich but hardier Cavendish became popular following this but its lack of genetic diversity makes it equally vulnerable to pests and diseases. Against this backdrop, the contribution of farmers like Nishanth and Vinod to the conservation of banana diversity is immeasurable. “We approach Vinod for germplasm we don’t have. His knowledge of genetic diversity in bananas is commendable,” said Backiyarani. Vinod is also a regular at exhibitions that showcase diversity in bananas. “It is my goal to have a banana village in every district of Kerala,” Vinod said.

Ramakumar, a professor at the Centre for Study of Developing Economies, School of Development Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, sees a clear advantage for ex-situ preservation over in-situ (on their natural habitats/farms). “Diversity by itself does not ensure better yield or food security. Diversity has to be scientifically managed for an increase in productivity and farmer income,” he said. Repeated cultivation of a traditional variety of seed, as it often happens on farms, leads to the seed losing some of its traditional traits over a period of time which is eliminated when seeds are conserved in gene banks, said Ramakumar. Jose of the Banana Research Station said that regulated conservation of germplasm happens in the labs as duplication is often noticed among varieties on a farm since a farmer cannot scientifically determine a variety. According to Jose, only a molecular or a morphological study by an expert can detect differences in certain varieties.

Unripe bananas in Nishanth’s field.

‘More investment in ex-situ preservation needed’ 
Extreme weather events can have a devastating impact on crops like bananas. This could lead to the permanent loss of seed varieties if we are only depending on farmers for conservation. “In the event of a disaster, we can go back to the gene banks and recreate the variety in multiple ways. This happened in Cambodia after the Khmer Rouge war and in Vietnam after Agent Orange. Many seed varieties were recovered from gene banks,” Ramakumar suggested. While he appreciates the contributions of farmers, he thinks agriculture should follow an efficient system of ex-situ preservation of traditional seeds and plant breeding techniques to ensure that the traits of tolerance to climate variabilities are transferred into seeds while maintaining their potential for productivity.

Farmers are equivocal about non-commercial banana farming being not profitable. Nishanth could pursue his passion because he did not depend on farming for sustenance. “People are unaware of the banana varieties and are unwilling to try new ones,” he said. Non-commercial banana varieties have no place in the market. Some rare varieties with taste similar to commercial ones sell occasionally but for very low price, as low as Rs 40 a kilo, he said. Then there are a handful of friends or other farmers who know the value of these varieties and ask for particular ones. “They sometimes buy for Rs 80 a kilo. That’s the most I have made from these fruits,” said Nishanth.

These farmers mostly profit from selling suckers. In a year, Nishanth makes an average of Rs 1.5 lakh by selling suckers while the profit from the fruits is only about Rs 40,000. “Sucker prices range from Rs 250 to Rs 5000. Fancy varieties like Praying Hands are popular among resort owners and sell for around Rs 5000 for a sucker,” he said. The limitations on the acreage a farmer can have in states like Kerala post Land Reforms Act (1963) also discourages many farmers from venturing into non-commercial farming.  A lack of encouragement from the state government too is a dampener. Vinod said that there are no financial incentives from the state government for his contributions except for recognition in the form of awards and exhibitions. Backiyarani believes that science could benefit from collaborating with these farmers since they sometimes have more information about bananas than scientists. “These farmers inspire and educate other farmers to conserve traditional varieties. Such initiatives should be supported,” she added.

(Courtesy: Mongabay-India/