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Science

How to build a better banana with skin you can eat

A new strain of the tropical fruit can be grown in cooler climates without chemicals

A banana developed by a Japanese researcher can be eaten without peeling off the skin. (Photo by Ken Kobayashi)

TOKYO -- As any child can tell you, that the first thing you must do to eat a banana, is to peel it.

Until now.

A Japanese researcher has developed a new strain of banana with edible skin so it does not to be peeled. It can also be grown in cooler climates than regular bananas, and does not need chemical pesticides to help keep it free from disease.

Researcher Setsuzo Tanaka has been trying to grow the perfect banana for 40 years. He may now have finally come up with one, based the Gros Michel strain, meaning "fat Michel" in French. It has a thicker skin and is sweeter than the more common Cavendish strain. Tanaka's new variation has a softer skin that is easy to eat, and has much the same flavor as a regular banana.

In December last year, Tanaka set up Bio Revolution Technology, funded by the Tokyo-based real-estate company Kyosei Bank Group, to grow saplings for the new banana, and sell them to farms.

The secret to making the banana peel-free is the unique saplings, which are frozen and then gradually thawed so they can survive at lower temperatures than those grown in tropical climates. This makes it possible to grow them in a more northerly climate such as that of Japan. They grow about five times faster than normal bananas.

Tanaka's strain uses bamboo charcoal instead of chemicals and antibiotics, which accumulate in the skin. 

"Normal banana skin tastes so bitter because so many chemicals are used, making them dangerous to eat," Tanaka said.

Setsuzo Tanaka explains the process of cultivating his banana saplings at a Tokyo news conference.

Kyosei Bank Group has its own banana plantation of 20,000 sq. meters. It has branded the peel-free banana as Tomoiki Banana. The bananas, which went on sale in March, are priced at 877 yen ($8) each, and sold online and at a Kyosei-owned theme park in Mie Prefecture in western Japan. Though expensive, they are branded as having extra sweetness, and clear, detailed information on how and where they are cultivated.

This is not the first time for Tanaka's bananas to be sold to the public. D&T Farm, headquartered in southern Okayama Prefecture and run by his nephew, started selling them at the local Tenmaya department store in March 2017.

Bio Revolution Technology's goal is to encourage cultivation of Tanaka's bananas at more farms in Japan and abroad, said Kyosei Bank Group CEO Masataka Yanase.

The company plans to expand the size of its farms to 1 sq. km in two years, and to partner with other farms in Japan to grow the bananas using Tanaka's method. It is building a facility to grow 1.2 million saplings in Kitakyushu in southwestern Fukuoka Prefecture, planning to increase capacity to 10 million saplings in 2020.

The banana's skin is edible as no chemicals are used in cultivation.

Tanaka's bananas have also been getting attention outside Japan. Many tropical banana-growing areas, such as the Philippines, India and Taiwan, are afflicted with Panama disease, which kills many banana plants. Once a plant is infected, it cannot be cured. Tanaka hopes his saplings may be more resistant to the disease than normal banana plants, which depend on chemical pesticides and fertilizers.

The fact that Tanaka's bananas can grow in cooler areas not susceptible to the disease, such as Japan and parts of China, could lead to a more secure supply. Tanaka has collaborated with China's Ministry of Agriculture to grow bananas in Jilin Province in southeastern China. The team has also grown papaya in China using the same method.

Tanaka will carry out further tests with China Agricultural University to determine whether the bananas will grow in China's southern Hainan Province, which is afflicted with Panama disease.

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