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Growing bananas in the cold

Recreating ice-age conditions allows tropical fruit to grow in record time

Setsuzo Tanaka of D&T Farm spent 40 years developing a breading technique called "the freeze-thaw awakening method."

OKAYAMA, Japan Anyone claiming they can grow tropical fruit in a cold climate, and in a fraction of the time it would normally take, would more than likely get told they were ... well, bananas.

But a new breeding method that enables the fruit to grow rapidly in cool temperatures may one day turn Japan into a banana exporter, and potentially see staple crops grown in some of the world's most inhospitable climates.

Despite being some of the biggest banana-munchers in the world, the Japanese rely on imports for over 99% of its banana consumption. Every year, close to 1 million tons of the fruit are shipped over from the Philippines and other tropical countries.

But now, an agriculture company in western Japan has successfully managed to grow bananas through a technique called the "freeze-thaw awakening method."

At D&T Farm's experimental site, bananas grow almost large enough for harvest inside a simple plastic greenhouse.

"It usually takes two years for bananas to grow large enough, but here, they're ready in four months" said Setsuzo Tanaka, D&T Farm's officer in charge of technical research.

The method artificially re-creates the Earth's climate of 20,000 years ago by freezing banana saplings to minus 60 degrees. Once thawed, the saplings are planted.

Back then, plants would wake from a long hibernation as temperatures slowly and gradually rose following the end of the ice age. In the aftermath, maximum daytime temperatures were only 12 to 13 C and during the night, the mercury dropped below zero. Under such cold temperatures, banana plants came out of hibernation and flourished, meaning they could originally grow at very low temperatures.

The path was not a straightforward one, said Tanaka. Over four decades, he suffered one setback after another in his experiments, while at the same time, managing two businesses.

Tanaka said he had invested a total of 500 million yen ($4.3 million) of his own money to fund the research. With the cold-temperature harvesting system now in place, his efforts appear to have come to fruition.

An added bonus is that the method does not involve pesticides or genetic modification.

Japan's banana imports began in the early 1900s, when the fruit was brought over from Taiwan. They increased after World War II, but the supply of Taiwanese bananas halted in the 1960s.

Crops of the Gros Michel variety imported at the time were wiped out by the Panama disease, a wilt caused by a fungus.

Recently, the Cavendish banana has taken its place. But their yield could fall with a new strain of Panama emerging.

Tanaka's successful farming method uses a variety based on the Gros Michel, and is sweeter and richer in texture than those widely eaten today.

In 2017, Osaka-based chemical company Air Water is expected to start banana cultivation using Tanaka's saplings.

The city of Minamikyushu, in southern Japan, will make a similar move through a local cooperative.

OVERSEAS INTEREST Tanaka said U.S. agriculture multinational Dole Food has sounded him out about a potential future joint venture, but the project is also moving forward as a business in its own right. Although D&T Farm was established only a year or so ago, a local bank has offered to provide financing on an unsecured, unguaranteed basis.

Tanaka has also successfully grown and harvested papaya, cacao, mangosteen and cashew nuts using the method.

If banana cultivation spreads, the quick harvest could see the industry grow enormously.

"If bananas were cultivated on 30% of the fallow fields across Japan, that would grow the market to 600 billion yen and create 200,000 jobs," said a representative of a company offering support to agricultural cooperatives.

Lettuce was not initially grown in Japan, but most of what reaches its salad bowls today is produced domestically, and bananas could be next.

Tanaka's dream is to develop improved varieties of wheat, soybeans, and corn through freeze-thaw awakening for cultivation in Siberia.

"Siberia has an abundance of water and fertile soil," he said.

"If these crops could be harvested in such a cold climate, the entire global food shortage could be resolved all at once."

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