The Politics of Banana and Plantain Research
Peter Commandeur
Keywords:  Banana/plantain; International Network for the Improvement of Banana and Plantain (INIBAP); Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR); Policies/Programmes.
Correct citation: Commandeur, P. (1994), "The Politics of Banana and Plantain Research." Biotechnology and Development Monitor, No. 18, p. 11-13.

Ten years ago, the International Network for the Improvement of Banana and Plantain (INIBAP) was established primarily to improve the production of banana and plantain for domestic consumption in developing countries. Presently, the institute is subject to debate. The CGIAR criticizes INIBAP's role as co­ordinator of worldwide research on the said crops. It also argues that the institute is too narrowly focused on the breeding of disease­resistant varieties. INIBAP wants more time for the maturation of its regional research networks, which could address the social and agronomic impacts of banana and plantain growing.

The start of research on bananas was strongly linked with the outbreak of the fungal disease Fusarium wilt (or Panama disease) in export banana cultivation. In the 1920s, the rapid spread of this disease endangered the just a few decades old and highly lucrative banana exports of Central America and the Caribbean. For that reason, the British government established a research institute in Jamaica, while the private United Fruit Company started banana research in Honduras. The latter initiative was most successful, not in beating Fusarium wilt in the existing variety, but in introducing a new, resistant, and the still common 'Cavendish' banana variety from Asia.
A new disease, Yellow Sigatoka launched a second wave of research in the 1930s. This leaf spot disease, however, was soon sufficiently controlled by fungicides and mineral oil sprayings. The outbreak of Black Sigatoka in the 1960s announced a third major phase in banana research. The fact that Black Sigatoka not only affected the intensive cultivation of export bananas in Latin America, but also worldwide invaded the locally consumed banana and plantain varieties (together referred to as Musa, see box), awakened interest in Musa research directed to smallholdings.

Meanwhile, the driving forces in the field of banana had changed. The dominance by transnational companies was, to a certain extent, diminished by the emergence of governmental and intergovernmental organizations to protect common national interests. These organizations showed at least some interest in locally consumed Musa. The Union of Banana Exporting Countries (UPEB), joined by Colombia, Costa Rica Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama and Venezuela is one of the most important intergovernmental organizations. The aim of this organization, established in 1974, is to make its member states and their large national producers less dependent on transnational companies in respect of marketing their products.
Due to the lack of successes after decades of investment in breeding and the political struggles in its production countries, the United Fruit Company withdrew from banana research in 1983. It donated the breeding programme, related property, and Musa germplasm to the Honduran government. The opportunity to internationalize the commitment of the world's most important research institute on Musa and to expand it to non­export bananas was (partly) used when the now called Fundación Hondureña de Investigación Agrícola (FHIA) was funded first by FAO and the Canadian International Development Research Centre (IDRC), and later by United States Agency for International Development (USAID), Windward Islands Banana Growers Association (WINBAN), St. Lucia, and Ecuador.

Establishment of INIBAP
The arrival of Black Sigatoka in Africa and the threat it posed to small holders in the early 1980s led to the establishment of the International Network for the Improvement of Banana and Plantain (INIBAP) in 1984. After a series of meetings under the auspices of the IDRC, the involved donors, scientists and representatives of most major banana and plantain producing countries decided that INIBAP should co­ordinate an international effort addressing the deficiency in banana and plantain research for the benefit of developing countries. It was stressed that the primary objective of INIBAP should be increasing production and stability of production of bananas and plantains grown for domestic consumption within producing countries.
The initiators opted for a network model with a primarily regional structure. The network should use the resources of existing breeding programmes without creating its own central research facility. INIBAP now collaborates with the world's main research institutes in Musa, which include FHIA, Honduras, the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), Nigeria, the Centre de Coopération Internationale en Recherche Agronomique pour le Développement (CIRAD), and the Empresa Brasiliera de Pequisa Agroprecuarias (EMBRAPA), Brazil.

The miscellaneous world of bananas and plantains 
The nowadays known bananas and plantains resulted from the human selection (not breeding) of varieties from Musa acuminata (AA genome) and hybrids between this wild banana and Musa balbisiana (BB genome), another wild species of the family Musaceae.
The nomenclature of banana and plantain is extremely confusing, since the same name is sometimes used for different varieties and vice versa. The dividing line between bananas and plantain does not coincide with those of fruits that can be eaten fresh, or those that need to be cooked. Plantains are simply a sub­group of AAB genome bananas. Due to this confusion, bananas and plantain are often referred to as Musa. Currently the most important genome types are AAA (including Cavendish, the export banana), AAB and ABB.

Only 10 per cent of the global Musa production is exported. Most bananas and plantains are produced for home consumption, or for the local market. Small and large farmers grown Musa under very different systems of cultivation, from backyard cultivation, extensive cultivation with or without inputs, to intensive cultivation. Musa is grown as monocrop, but is also often found in complex cropping systems. Besides, it is grown in different ecoregions.
Since the categories of the mentioned genetic, agronomic, climatic and social economic differences of banana and plantain production do not correspond, musa cultivation worldwide is extremely diverse.

In 1991, INIBAP was invited to join the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) for a five­year trial period as a novel mode of operation in international agricultural research. At a time when donors perceived a need to explore new institutional models for future CGIAR activities, it was expected that a network could be more cost­efficient and more likely to provide effective linkages with national research systems (NARS), than the establishment of a 'traditional' hands­on international research institute on banana and plantain.
As is normal practice for CGIAR membership, an external evaluation of INIBAP's management and programme was commissioned by the Technical Advisory Committee (TAC) of the CGIAR in 1992. A second evaluation, wider in scope, was carried out in 1993 as a CGIAR Task Force on Banana and Plantain. Both missions stressed the importance of banana and plantain research, and the need for a CGIAR effort. However, in a relatively short time, two partly different views were presented on two key issues: INIBAP's co­ordinating role in international Musa research and its regional activities.

Co­ordinator of Musa research
INIBAP's organization of the global research on Musa through existing research capabilities of other organizations was one of the arguments to hail INIBAP as a new model within the CGIAR in 1991. However, precisely the lack of in­house research capabilities has been heavily criticized since then. As research is competitive, some argue, the struggle for the small available funds takes place on an individual basis. Researchers do not want to be 'co­ordinated', especially not by an organization without a research base of its own, located far from the production areas, and, perhaps most important, without any funds to divide. INIBAP instead, perceives itself as a research institute, contributing to the research process which includes: Priority definition, actual research, and analysis and dissemination of results. It finds itself supported by several donors, including IDRC which has recently initiated the global co­ordination of existing research on bamboo and rattan along the same model.


The International Network on the Improvement of Banana and Plantain (INIBAP) was established in 1984. In 1990, INIBAP became part of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). Its commitment is "to improve the productivity of smallholders who grow banana and plantain". Its activities are directed at Musa production for domestic consumption, and to cultivation of export bananas by smallholders. INIBAP employs a total staff of 15 people worldwide. Its 1992 budget was US$ 2.8 million. 
The main activities of INIBAP are: 

  • Musa Germplasm Exchange System. This umbrella programme includes the co­ordination of the collection, indexing, inventory and shipment of Musa accessions. At the Catholic University, Leuven, Belgium, INIBAP has an in vitro genebank, and research is carried out on in vitro techniques, cryopreservation and genetic transformation. For the safe exchange of Musa germplasm, INIBAP employs two virus indexing centres, one at Centre de Coopération Internationale en Recherche Agronomique pour le Développement (CIRAD), Montpellier, France, and one at the Queensland Department of Primary Industries (QDPI), Brisbane, Australia. Research into developing reliable tests for detecting viruses that can be carried out by in vitro cultures is a priority;
  • Musa Germplasm Information System. Identification of the biodiversity of Musa to facilitate the efficient conservation and utilization germplasm is the main aim of this programme. Especially the development of an unequivocal taxonomy has been giving high priority.
  • International Musa Testing Programme. INIBAP co­ordinates the evaluation of new banana and plantain hybrids for resistance of Black Sigatoka at NARS and international centres in different ecological zones. In the first phase, 1990­1993, 7 hybrids of Fundación Hondureña de Investigación Agrícola (FHIA) were tested in six sites, out of which 3 showed a potential for further evaluation at the regional and local level. In the second phase, new material of 7 breeding programmes will be tested in probably 18 countries;
  • Regional research and training. INIBAP is working with 3 regional networks to elaborate INIBAPÕs global activities on regional level. Besides, the regional networks assist national and regional programmes to set research priorities, to find donor support, to sustain research on region­specific problems and opportunities, and to develop training courses.
  • Information and documentation. INIBAP runs two trilingual databases on literature and research on Musa, and organizes thematic workshops, for example on biotechnology applications in Musa research (see Monitor no. 14, March 1993). Besides, it produces the triannual bibliographic abstract publication Musarama, and a biannual information journal Infomusa in English, Spanish and French.
INIBAP, Parc Scientifique Agropolis,
34397 Montpellier Cedex 5,

Phone: (+33) 67 61 13 02
Fax: (+33) 67 61 03 34
E­mail: 157:CGI150

The CGIAR's Task Force appeared to be one of the opponents of the co­ordinating role of INIBAP in international Musa research, and its recommendations could have far­reaching implications for INIBAP. They included the establishment of a consortium of Musa research organizations, with a mutually agreed programme on Musa germplasm improvement. INIBAP's activities would be reduced to run the scientific secretariat of the consortium, facilitating relations between research programmes, information, documentation and training.
In May 1993, the CGIAR decided that INIBAP would come under the governance and administration of the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute (IPGRI, the former IBPGR), while maintaining its own identity, location, mandate and programme focus. Due to pressure of the USAID and the World Bank, INIBAP's donor support group finally agreed with this reorganization in October 1993. Although INIBAP would have preferred to continue as an independent organization, it does not expect major problems regarding the integration of INIBAP and IPGRI, since IPGRI supports INIBAP's way of working. A Memorandum of Understanding will be signed in May 1994, when also the remaining question of representation of Musa interests in the board of IPGRI is supposed to be settled.
The 'forced marriage' will not imply that germplasm conservation will get more attention on the expense of the other activities, according to David Jones, scientific research co­ordinator of INIBAP. "IPGRI's mandate also includes conservation and use of germplasm. The use side is little developed, but the IPGRI's recent network on coconut germplasm could be seen as an example of its interest in both the conservation and use of germplasm".

INIBAP's regional activities
INIBAP considers its regional networks of strategic importance for research service and problem solving at the regional and national level. Regional advisory meetings have been held with NARS and other institutes active in Musa research to discuss priorities and exchange research methodologies and results. The extent to which the producers are involved in establishing research priorities depends on the national programmes.
The first review commissioned by CGIAR recommended the further development of each regional network. It concluded that the regional networks had become the 'catch­all entities" for virtually all Musa activities which are not covered by INIBAP's global activities. Although these issues are only focused on at regional level, they include, according to the review team, the 'most pressing needs'. Due to their ad hoc status, however, no core funds are allocated to these activities.
In the second review, however, the Task Force showed no confidence in the potential of the regional networks, and recommended that INIBAP would significantly reduce its involvement in regional activities. INIBAP itself would greatly regret such a step, and claims that the regional networks had never been given the time to mature. According to INIBAP, without its active support, these networks will soon collapse. INIBAP is now confident that regional networks will continue after integration with IPGRI. However, operations may need to be rationalized in view of a declining budget due to overall cuts in CGIAR's expenditure.

INIBAP's research agenda
In setting its priorities, INIBAP does not distinguish itself from other efforts in the history of Musa research, in the sense that these initiatives also had their main focus on disease resistance and germplasm conservation.
Its commitment to smallholder production of Musa, implies that INIBAP has to deal with a very diverse 'group' of not further defined small farmers, who are growing different varieties of Musa, for different purposes, in very different production circumstances (see box). Within this high diversity, INIBAP prioritizes genetic resistance to major Musa diseases, sustained by germplasm collection, conservation and dissemination activities (see box). The institute expects the development of new resistant Musa cultivars and their dissemination among small producers to benefit those who could otherwise not afford the costs of chemical protection of diseases and pests, especially Black Sigatoka. Black Sigatoka is infamous in Latin America, where it burdens producers with high costs in order to control the disease, and endangers the crops of those who can not afford these costs. In Africa and Asia/Pacific this disease is also important.
In the first review, INIBAP's focus was assessed as being too narrow. INIBAP's research agenda does not include biological control, integrated pest management and cultural practices, issues which were expected to be well suited to subsistence agriculture by the review panel. Furthermore, the review team found a lack of research on post­harvest technology and economics. Although INIBAP places credits in the availability of new resistant cultivars for small farmers, no attention is paid to technology adoption or its social impact. INIBAP recognizes most of these subjects as important. But Nicolás Mateo, director of INIBAP, contends that "national programmes should look at this. They should look at market potentials and at whole farming systems, not just at plants". He also points out the institute's very small staff of only 4 professional officers at headquarters in France.

What will be the result of the proposed institutional rearrangement of INIBAP for Musa research on the production of home­consumed bananas and plantains in developing countries? It may be expected that research at the most important Musa research institutes will not be significantly influenced. Activities towards genetically resistant Musa varieties are likely to be continued.
But what will happen with the other research issues which are considered to be important both at national level in the producing areas, as well as by the CGIAR? Although these issues are not prioritized by INIBAP's global activities, they are to a certain extent addressed within its regional networks. Will these issues be included in the major research initiatives, or will national programmes be more directly supported in order to enable them to develop agronomic and socio­economic research on Musa? Neither possibility is very likely. If INIBAP is forced into a direction in which its regional networks become less important or disappear at all, it seems more plausible that less attention will be paid to these important research issues rather than more.
Peter Commandeur

CGIAR/TAC (1992), Report of the First External Program and Management Review of the International Network for the Improvement of Banana and Plantain (INIBAP). Consultive Group on International Agricultural Research/Technical Advisory Committee, The World Bank.

CGIAR Task Force on Banana and Plantain (1993), Process Report. CGIAR.

IW Buddenhagen (1993), "Whence and Whither Banana Research and Development?". In: INIBAP, Biotechnology Applications for Banana and Plantain Improvement. Proceedings of the Workshop held in San José, Costa Rica, 27­31 January 1992. Montpellier, France: INIBAP, pp.12­26.

INIBAP (1993), Annual Report 1992. Montpellier, France: INIBAP.

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