Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Bill Gates: Building Better Bananas

Our foundation’s work around the world gives me opportunities to meet really smart, visionary people who are doing pioneering work in fields that I might not get a chance to learn much about otherwise. For example, in December Melinda and I went to Cairns, Australia, where James Dale and his team from Queensland University of Technology are doing advanced research on bananas. As odd as that might sound, this research could make a big contribution to public health in a lot of Africa and Asia.

Before our visit, I didn’t know much about bananas. Dale, an agricultural scientist, is one of the world’s leading experts. He has been profiled in The New Yorker, in a fascinating article about the history of bananas as an export crop. As the article explains, a blight has spread among plantations in Asia and Australia in recent years, badly damaging production of the one type of banana that is grown for export, the Cavendish. This disease, a fungus, hasn’t spread to Latin America yet, but if it does, bananas could get a lot scarcer and more expensive in North America and elsewhere. Dale is working to develop new versions of the Cavendish that resist the fungus. He does this by inserting genetic material from other organisms into banana plants.

This work is separate from the research that our foundation supports, although some of the same techniques and scientific principles are involved, including transgenic experiments. Making banana plants less susceptible to diseases is a secondary goal for us. Our primary goal is to help Dale develop new types of banana that are more nutritious – specifically, much richer in Vitamin A and Iron that the body can absorb.


Related article: “WE HAVE NO BANANAS”

Related book: Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World