Did you know that the world’s biggest banana collection is in … Belgium. Belgium?!
Surely, the small country in the center of Europe was not the first country that came to your mind as location for a tropical plant collection. And, yet, the world’s largest banana collection – called the International Transit Center (ITC) – is in Belgium, or more precisely, at the Catholic University of Leuven.
Bananas are not all yellow and creamy and sweet as the Cavendish banana that you can buy in your local supermarket. Bananas exist in all kinds of sizes, colors and tastes. They can be small or big, green, yellow or red, some taste sweet, others are starchy as a potato. Bananas are grown in 135 countries and territories around the world and are a vital food resource for over 400 million people. Worldwide, there are around 2000 different bananas varieties.
The banana genebank in Leuven maintains 1547 banana accessions of both edible and wild banana species. Since most bananas do not produce seeds, the 40 scientists working at the ITC cannot simply store seeds of the bananas as is done for other crops at the Artic Svalbard Seed Bank. Instead, each of the 1547 banana accessions is represented by 20 tissue-culture plantlets that are kept on nutrient medium at 16°C. At this temperature, the small banana plantlets grow minimally and only need to be transferred to new growth medium once a year.
To ensure the long-term conservation, the banana accessions are also cryopreserved. This means that they are frozen to – 196°C and stored in liquid nitrogen. Once defrosted, they continue to grow. Currently 66% (1050 accessions) of the collection is deep-frozen, thereby, making the ITC banana collection the largest plant cryopreservation collection in the world.
For each banana variety, digital information is gathered and published on the internet. The accessions can be ordered online to stimulate use of these plants and to ensure that the various types are not lost for future generations. In the past 30 years, the ITC has send material to over 109 countries. The clients are NGOs, breeders, farmers and scientists at universities or research institutions (including myself).
The ITC was established in 1985 by Prof. De Langhe, the founder of the Laboratory of Tropical Crop Improvement in Leuven, with the aim to conserve all available banana and plantain genetic resources.
Since 1994, the ITC is protected by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations (UN). Customers taking samples from the genebank may not patent them, because it is assumed that the collection belongs to mankind. And more specifically to the countries who originally supplied the material. Should the material be commercialized – after breeding or genetic modification – 1.1% of the sales profit must be returned to the originating country via the UN.
Commercial returns from this benefit-sharing policy remain trivial. But thanks to the ITC, Belgium is today the second largest importer and exporter of bananas in the world.
picture credits: “Diversity of Bananas”: http://www.21stcentech.com/popular-banana-breed-danger-fung, all other images: @BananarootsBlog