Designer Banana Seen As Appealing, a Slip-Up


Canada has slashed away at its budget deficit for years, but there is one expenditure its cash-strapped government absolutely will not chop: banana research.

Here in the land of ice and snow, tundra and moose, the decades-long quixotic quest for the perfect banana finally bore fruit this fall with a sweet new strain affectionately dubbed the "Mona Lisa."

Canada, of course, has no tropics to actually grow banana plants. So government-funded scientists have had to toil over this genetic work of art at a research facility in La Lima, Honduras.

Unlike the familiar Cavendish variety of banana, the upstart Mona Lisa is genetically immune to the global banana blight currently ravaging the Cavendish and so does not need expensive pesticides that small banana farmers cannot generally afford. In all, Canada has spent $7.5 million over 15 years on a noble foreign-aid goal: create a low-cost banana so the hungry masses of the world can afford to eat bananas themselves - not just export them to North America and Europe.

The one "flaw" of the Mona Lisa is that - unlike the bright yellow-skinned Cavendish that North American consumers know so well - the Mona Lisa must turn a dark brown outside before the inside reaches ideal ripeness. That means big banana exporters won't be selling the Mona Lisa in bulk any time soon.

"Beauty is in the eye of the beholder," says Jean-Marc Fleury, a spokesman for the International Development Research Center, an Ottawa agency that promotes research into third-world agriculture issues. "Our aim was never to create the new export banana for the big multinational companies."

But not everyone, it seems, loves Mona Lisa. Some Canadian lawmakers say spending taxpayer dollars on developing new strains of bananas made in Honduras is more than a mere slip-up. "How many bananas do we grow in Canada?" asks John Williams, a Reform Party member of Parliament from Alberta. "We should be concerned about wheat, barley, oats, soybeans - the genetic diversity of crops we grow in Canada."

Bananas are the world's most popular fruit and a $2-billion industry. They are also the world's fourth-most-important food item after rice, wheat, and milk. Because the Mona Lisa is cheap to grow, it is catching on with small farmers in Ghana, South Africa, Honduras, Costa Rica, and other nations.

Creation of the Mona Lisa super-banana strain is good news in banana-loving Canada, too. Canadians eat on average 30 pounds of bananas annually, edging out Americans at 28 pounds per person. Almost all are the Cavendish variety. But small companies say the new Mona Lisa fits a health-oriented market for organically grown food.

"We realized we had something exceptional in our hands," says Charles Beresford, president of Natural Harvest Food Co. Ltd., the largest organic produce distributor in Ontario. His company is conducting in-store demos after tests showed Quebeckers and Ontarians like the Mona Lisa.

Just this month, the Mona Lisa also began to show up on a few store shelves in Canada and the United States. Health-conscious Swedes have already cornered the European market on organic bananas. So to ease the shortfall, the Mona Lisa will soon be shipped to Europe.

The Mona Lisa is doubly sweet to Canadians from a geopolitical standpoint, too. The new banana is popular in Fidel Castro's Cuba and may help him hang on to power a while longer. Canada opposes the way that the US is isolating Mr. Castro.

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