It is true that the banana has never had the star appeal of, say, the mango or the orange. Neither has it got the power to bring down governments, like the onion. But its ubiquity is also its consistent quality – no matter where you are in India, a banana (or a bunch of them) will keep you going at a very wallet-friendly price.
And looking into sustaining the nutritional and economic appeal of this perennial fruit is the mandate of the National Research Centre for Banana (NRCB), located in Thayanur, Thogamalai Road, approximately 15 kilometres from Tiruchi.
Established in 1993, the NRCB has done extensive research on the ‘poor man’s apple’, from developing new commercial strains to preserving traditional ones, improving farming methods and advocating eco-friendly pesticides.
There’s even a laboratory to find out ways to use the banana and plantain in pickles, biscuits and other innovative ways.
“There’s no seasonality for banana, which is its disadvantage. That’s why there’s a glut in the market and its price suffers. But the banana has among the highest nutrition rates in fruits,” says Dr. M. M. Mustaffa, Director, NRCB.
Tiruchi district was chosen for the centre, he says, because it is a region where polyclonal cultivation – the farming of many varieties – is possible in one place. Tamil Nadu is the leading producer of bananas in the country, and Tiruchi district alone has nine to ten exclusive varieties. “Even though Kerala is famous for Nendran banana in its diet, more than 10,000 acres are under cultivation in our district, and we supply most of the Nendran to that state,” says Dr. Mustaffa. Other indigenous varieties include rasthali, karpuravalli, poovan and pachanadan.
Among the success stories of the centre is the Udhayam banana, a substitute for karpuravalli, which does well in most soil types, yields at least 70kg per plant, and is resistant to leaf-spot and nematodes.
The centre is working on bananas fortified with Vitamin A and iron to combat nutritional diseases. “Next year, we will be introducing a dwarf karpuravalli, that can come to maturity within 12 months, and two cooking type of bananas of the high-yielding variety,” says Dr. Mustaffa.
The market is dominated by the commercial Grand Naine (G9), a cultivar of Musa acuminata that yields long and evenly coloured yellow bananas, and is much sought after for export.
Unfortunately its popularity has also led to the slow decline of native varieties, says Dr. Mustaffa.
“Tissue culture companies are interested only in G9, because there is no assured demand for the local varieties like rasthali. Besides, traditional varieties need more time and money to multiply,” he says.
The centre serves as a certifying centre for clean plant material by testing samples for genetic fidelity and viruses, usually supplied by the 42 government-accredited tissue culture companies. “There is a serious problem with disease in the banana,” says Dr. Mustaffa. “Our main aim is to identify resistant gene sources so that we can develop some disease-resistant varieties.” The centre has the biggest banana germ plasm (genetic material) collection in the world, with over 350 varieties in its database.
The NRCB also maintains a 100-acre farm nearby for its research activities.
Getting farmers to adopt new planting methods is among the many duties of the centre’s Production Technology lab. “Banana is a special crop that flowers exactly 8,9 or 10 months from the date of planting,” says Dr. V. Kumar, Principal Scientist. “We have developed an organic package where we offer advice on planting to avoid coinciding it with the monsoon, windy or summer seasons.”
The lab has also developed products like bunch covers that can protect the fruit from damage. It also teaches farmers how to use drip irrigation and ‘fertigation’– application of fertlisers and soil amendments through the irrigation system.
While the harvesting remains a manual task, planting has become more mechanisation-friendly as farmers go for the centre’s idea to plant three suckers in a pit and widen the row space in between, says Dr. Kumar.
Eco-friendly cultivation remains a key concern for the centre, and one blend of the old and the new can be seen in the usage of trichoderma-enriched rice chaff grains to fight fusarium wilt, a fungal disease common in banana plants. “We boil the rice chaff grains with jaggery, and use it as an insecticide. The liquid formation for it is also available,” says Dr. R. Thangavelu of the Pathology Division.
Old vs. new
Highlighting the importance of preserving the local varieties, Dr. S. Uma, Principal Scientist of the Crop Improvement Division states the example of the manoranjitham banana. The variety, is native to the Kolli Hills, and is immune to leaf-spot, a disease that takes at least 40 sprays of insecticide to be quelled. “When we went back to get a sample, we realised that it had vanished from cultivation,” says Dr. Uma. “So we developed a tissue culture for that variety with the help of the Department of Biotechnology and are perpetuating it once more among the local farmers in Kolli Hills. Many varieties have been given back to the farmers in this way.”
For those interested in developing ‘value-added’ bananas, the centre also suggests products like banana flour-based cookies, baby food and soup powders. “Banana figs – dehydrated karpuravalli fruits – can last up to three months and are a healthy snack,” says senior scientist Dr. K.N. Shiva. who also shares ideas on how to use the peel of the fruit in pickles.
As its cultivation becomes more profitable, NRCB director Dr. Mustaffa says ‘non-traditional’ states like Uttar Pradesh are shifting over to banana from sugarcane farming, because of the fruit’s steady demand. Ubiquity does have its merits.