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Headlines Published on 23 February 2007

Title American science journalism “magazine” award features EU-funded banana project

At their recent annual meeting in San Francisco, California, the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences (AAAS) handed this year’s science journalism award in the “magazine reporting” category to freelance journalist Craig Canine. Mr Canine had described ongoing efforts to build a “better banana” in a feature story which appeared in Smithsonian magazine. The EU’s role in supporting CARBAP in Africa to find new varieties of bananas, which are a major source of food intake in developing countries, was highlighted.

Different banana varieties are an important food source for many Africans. © Matt+
Different banana varieties are an important food source for many Africans.
Millions depend on the banana to stay alive. With diseases threatening many banana varieties, scientists are searching for new hybrids. In a lively account, Mr Canine described the research effort and the ingenious methods being used to breed a better banana. “This was such an evocative piece that I had to go home and eat a banana,” said jury member Seth Borenstein of the Associated Press. “This article had everything you look for – depth, detail, significance and science. Truly an enjoyable read.”

The AAAS science journalism awards, which have been given to nearly 400 journalists since the competition began in 1945, grant a prize sum of $ 3 000 and a plaquete. The 2006 AAAS Science Journalism Award Ceremony took place at this year’s AAAS annual meeting on 16 February in San Francisco. Independent panels of science journalists chose the winners of the awards in categories for print (large/small newspapers), magazine and television, radio and online journalism. Another prize category for “Children’s Science News” was added in 2005 and is the only category open for journalists from anywhere in the world.

Craig Canine, who wrote the story for Smithsonian magazine, remarked that he was “gratified and humbled to be associated with the distinguished journalists whom the AAAS has honoured with these awards over the years”. He stressed his hopes that his story brings “wider attention to the pressing scientific need to breed new, disease-resistant crop varieties for the use of subsistence farms in Africa and elsewhere.” The story was first published in October 2005 to a mostly American readership and can be read online.

For his story, Canine visited leading banana treasuries in Europe and Africa. At the Catholic University of Leuven near Brussels the world’s largest collection of banana varieties are guarded: 1200 different varieties of bananas are kept there, not what the consumer would expect when facing the one and only supermarket banana, known by experts as Musa sapientum, on the shelves. The EU is supporting Africa’s efforts to breed different varieties of bananas with a multi-annual development project. The African Research Center on Bananas and Plantains (CARBAP) develops and breeds tree-size specimens, unlike the Belgium germ store. With the support of the EU, CARBAP has already developed a number of disease-resistant varietes that farmers can test in their own fields. CARBAP, which runs between 2004 and 2009, works with traditional breeding methods (no genetic modifications) using modern molecular genetics techniques for rapid screening of hybrids for disease susceptibility, as well as for nutritional and other characteristics, like fruit texture and taste. And in Africa the banana is not the sweet type of variety mostly known in the Western world, but a starch rich source of calories.

Smithsonian magazine is a monthly publication which chronicles the arts, history, sciences and popular culture. It is edited by the Smithsonian Institution, America’s national educational facility with 18 museums, 9 research centres and 120 affiliates around the world.

More information:

  • “Building A Better Banana” by Craig Canine
  • Smithsonian Foundation
  • EU supported CARBAP
  • EU food quality and safety research

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