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New endangered species: Wild bananas

Bananas and plantains are a common staple in India but shrinking habitat is reducing the genetic base of the species.Gautam Singh / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Wild banana species are disappearing in India, the world's biggest producer of the fruit, due to shrinking forests and rapid urbanization, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization has said.

India harvested more than 20 percent of the total world output of 73 million metric tons in 2005, the FAO said in a recent press statement.

"But over-exploitation and the loss of forests as a result of encroachment and logging, slash-and-burn cultivation and urbanization are causing a rapid loss of wild banana species that have existed in India for thousands of years," it said.

Bananas are the world's most exported fruit, and the fourth most important food commodity after rice, wheat and maize, the food agency added.

India had contributed significantly to the "global genetic base of bananas," said NeBambi Lutaladio, FAO's agriculture officer.

"But due to ecosystem destruction, it is probable that many valuable gene sources have now been lost," Lutaladio said. "That could cause serious problems because bananas, particularly commercial varieties, have a narrow genetic pool and are highly vulnerable to pests and diseases," he said.

Historically, it was Alexander the Great who put bananas on the map in 327 B.C. when, during his invasion of India, he reported eating and enjoying the fruit, the statement said.

The FAO is calling for a systematic exploration of the wild bananas' remaining forest habitat, which lies in some of India's most remote regions and in the jungles of Southeast Asia, to catalog the number and types of surviving wild species.

The food agency, which tries to preserve agricultural biodiversity, has sought better land management in India and the introduction of wild bananas in developing new species of the fruit for cultivation.