Securing the future of the UK's favourite fruit

Lead Research Organisation: University of Exeter
Department Name: Biosciences


The UK is highly dependent on imported fruit and vegetables that make up eighty per cent of the market, compared with half of cereals and one sixth of meat and dairy produce. Yet, fruit and vegetables are a key component of a healthy diet, often overlooked in studies of global food security that tend to focus on the major grains. Reliance on imports makes the UK vulnerable to instabilities in international production and supply, placing the issue of resilience of the UK food system firmly in a global context. This vulnerability is epitomized by the banana, the most popular fruit in the UK by consumption, and the most important fruit in the world by production. More than five billion bananas are purchased in Britain each year, and the UK accounts for seven per cent of the global export market. Though hundreds of banana varieties are grown around the world for domestic consumption, only one variety, Cavendish, is internationally traded. The previous export variety, Gros Michel, was eliminated by Panama Disease (Fusarium oxysporum f. sp. cubense) in the 1950s, and now a new virulent strain, Tropical Race 4 (TR4), is emerging from Asia to threaten Cavendish. No alternative tradable varieties are available, and no chemical disease controls exist. If TR4 reaches Latin America and the Caribbean, supply to the US and EU will collapse, with significant impacts on the UK diet and on producers in the developing world. The vulnerability of the banana trade is an extreme case of the more general issue of imported crops that are vulnerable to emerging pests and diseases, for example citrus greening disease devastating oranges in Florida and California. Around the world efforts are underway to develop a resistant export banana variety, using both conventional breeding and genetic modification, as well as research into disease detection and alternative methods of control. However, the banana remains under-researched compared with the major crops, there has been little academic analysis of the resilience of the banana trade nor development of mitigation strategies to maintain supply or manage the impact of sudden catastrophe. In this multidisciplinary research programme, we will work with the UN FAO World Banana Forum (WBF) to collate detailed data on production levels, disease impacts, and mitigation methods. We will analyse patterns, trends and drivers of banana production, including pests, diseases, management, and climate, to provide robust models of production and how this could vary in future as diseases spread and the climate changes. We will test a new antifungal compound against TR4, to determine whether chemical control could mitigate production impacts while alternative resistant varieties remain under development. We will develop an economic model that characterizes the main features of the UK value chain, forming the basis for assessing the price transmission impacts following shocks in upstream markets and, by extension, the impact on UK consumers and the responses by UK food retailers and other market intermediaries. We will calibrate the theoretical framework and simulate the impact of projected production shocks in exporting countries on UK consumers, and derive the welfare impact for participants at each stage of the value chain. The banana market is politically sensitive, and over the past decade the price of bananas in the UK has declined, while production costs have increased, placing pressure on producers. Via the WBF, the UK charity Banana Link and the food sector consultancy 3Keel we will engage the UK retail sector and other stakeholders in rigorous key informant analysis of potential responses to vulnerabilities in the sector, impacts of prices rises on the UK consumer, feedbacks to producers, and strategies to improve resilience to production shocks. Our goal is to secure the future of the UK's favourite fruit, and provide a case study for improving the resilience of other vulnerable imported commodities.

Technical Summary

The UK is highly reliant on imported fruit and vegetables, an important component of a healthy diet. Import dependence potentially increases vulnerability to production shocks in producer countries. Globally, climate change and emerging pests and diseases increase the risk of production shocks for many crops. This is exemplified in the banana, the most popular fruit in the UK by consumption and the most important fruit in the world by production. Panama Disease Tropical Race 4 will cause the collapse of the global banana industry if it reaches Latin America and the Caribbean. Here, we address the major questions relating to resilience of banana production and supply in a global context, using an interdisciplinary approach with strong support from non-academic partners. First, we collate data and produce models of banana yield driven by climatic and management variables, comparing statistical models (GAMs) with process-driven models (GAEZ, Aquacrop) for national and sub-national (where available) yield data. We model projected future yields under climate change using RCP scenarios, comparing results to existing GAEZ projections. Second, we collate data and produce models of pest and disease spread risk among and within countries, using CABI observational data and other sources, and estimate production impact from known impacts and disease management mechanisms. Third, we test a novel antifungal chemistry on TR4, in comparison with existing chemistries, investing mode of action using microscopy and RNAseq, and testing the potential for resistance evolution. Fourth, we develop economic frameworks and econometric models to study transmission of production shocks on prices in the banana value chain, and potential to impact consumer behaviour. Fifth, we conduct stakeholder engagement workshops and interviews to inform of the potential impact and develop strategies in the UK retail sector to manage and mitigate risk, to improve resilience of the sector.

Planned Impact

Our multidisciplinary research programme brings together bioscientists, modellers, economists, social scientists, NGOs, UK retailers and a global network of researchers, producers, purchasers and stakeholders, under the umbrella of UN FAO World Banana Forum (WBF). WBF partners include major international companies - Chiquita, Dole, Fyffes, UK retailer Tesco, certification bodies - Fairtrade Foundation and the Rainforest Alliance, research organizations such as Bioversity International and Wageningen University and numerous organizations representing the interests of producers and consumers. Our UK partner organization, Banana Link, a founding member of WBF, is working closely with UK retail sector to improve the economic, environmental and social sustainability of the banana trade. Our partner, 3Keel, works across the UK food chain on sustainability, particularly in relation to climate change. Our research staff will attend WBF meetings and interact regularly with WBF Secretariat, Banana Link and 3Keel to exchange information and update stakeholders on project progress. Our outputs will thus be improved banana yield models, understanding of changing pest and disease distributions and their impacts and methods of control (with MycoSciences and Croda), improved models of the value chain and holistic strategies for improving resilience of the UK banana market.
Specific benefits will be:
1. Agricultural modellers: we will develop yield models, implementing the FAO GAEZ and Aquacrop models specifically for banana. These models are currently missing from the literature.
2. Food security and climate change researchers: Our projections of climate change impacts on banana production will widen the food security and climate change debate beyond the major grains. Our multidisciplinary programme will serve as an example for the analysis of other vulnerable fruit and vegetable crops, such as citrus.
3. Plant pathologists: Benefit from increased understanding of basic biology of Foc, mode of action of broad spectrum antifungal where resistance is unlikely to emerge.
4. Agricultural industry: Few new antifungals are in development and resistance is emerging to many extant chemistries, with withdrawal of many antifungals due to environmental concerns.
5. The global banana trade: International trade is at risk ultimately due to low diversity of the traded variety. We will gather information on research into new varieties, and disseminate this through WBF to facilitate investment, reduce development time and inform policy.
6. The UK retail sector: Buys bananas mainly directly from producers. Our programme will identify regions of greatest risk, and provide economic analyses of production shock scenarios to allow planning for improved resilience of the sector.
7. Developing country producers: Producers will benefit from improved disease control through low cost, environmentally acceptable antifungals, and more long-term our analyses will result in greater efforts to secure supply and improve economic and environmental sustainability.
8. UK overseas development aid: many countries that export bananas to UK are significant recipients of official development assistance (ODA) from UK government. (Colombia is UK's largest supplier of bananas, receiving £7 million ODA in 2013). Improved agricultural security and larger trade receipts will reduce dependence on ODA.
Millenium Development Goals:
1. UK public health: Bananas are an important component of the UK diet, with greater nutritional benefits than many alternative snack foods. By maintaining supply, we will reduce likelihood of a sudden shift to less healthy alternatives.
2. UK consumers: we aim to contribute to resilience and long term sustainability of UK's favourite fruit by raising awareness of fair trade and real market value. This may lead to increased UK banana prices, in line with EU markets, but it may ensure that developing world producers can continue to meet UK demand.


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Description Eden-Exeter Collaboration Fund to study biological control of Panama Disease
Amount £2,937 (GBP)
Organisation The Eden Project 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland (UK)
Start 04/2017 
End 09/2017
Description GCRF Impact Accelerator Award
Amount £11,500 (GBP)
Funding ID BGIAA10 
Organisation Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland (UK)
Start 03/2017 
End 03/2017
Description Horizon 2020
Amount € 130,196 (EUR)
Funding ID 727624 
Organisation European Commission 
Sector Public
Country European Union (EU)
Start 09/2017 
End 09/2021
Description Eden Project Collaboration 
Organisation The Eden Project
Country United Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland (UK) 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution We are developing a research collaboration with the Eden Project, that aims to investigate the use of companion planting in the control of Fusarium oxysporum f.sp. cubense ("Panama Disease"). We will employ metagenomic techniques, using our sequencing tools at Exeter, to investigate changes in the soil microbiome in control and companion-planted soils.
Collaborator Contribution Dr. Rachel Warmington, Plant Pathologist at the Eden Project, is establishing experiments and will assist us in preparing soil samples for analysis.
Impact Our collaboration has only just begun.
Start Year 2017
Description UN FAO World Banana Forum 
Organisation Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO)
Department World Banana Forum
Country Italy, Italian Republic 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution We have invited the WBF Coordinator, Farrah Adam, to join our GCRF-IAA funded meeting in Colombia, along with banana producer organizations from Colombia, Ecuador, Dominican Republic, Belize and Costa Rica. The meeting will take place on 27-28 March 2017. The WBF Coordinator brings experience in connecting diverse organizations involved in global banana production.
Collaborator Contribution WBF have put our research team into contact with organizations involved in the banana trade, for example the fruit importer Mack. We regularly join WBF teleconferences to discuss banana production and trade issues with other WBF member organizations.
Impact None yet.
Start Year 2016
Description Article describing BananEx research project 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact Published a short article describing the BananEx project and risks to banana production and trade in the online magazine.
The magazine, which is viewed by thousands of will report downloads and reads of the article after 3 months.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
Description Interview on Farming Today (BBC Radio 4) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Interviewed about potential impact of Panama Disease TR4 on banana production and global banana trade, in context of BananEx research project.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
Description Interviewed by Simon Bates on BBC Radio Devon 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Interviewed by Simon Bates on his breakfast show on BBC Radio Devon on 13th October 2016.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
Description Talk on plant pathogens and climate change at the Sainsbury Laboratory, Norwich 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact I gave a talk on the responses of plant pathogens to climate change at the Sainsbury Laboratory, to around 30 researchers.
I met with Prof Peter van Esse, Dr Sarah Schmidt (also working on Panama Disease), and Dr Diane Saunders (working on wheat stem rust). We are developing research collaborations together.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017