This story starts in the lush valleys of Papua New Guinea (although the records are unclear), and takes place more than 8,000 years before the Common Era (BCE). At the center of this story is the banana.

Back then, bananas were unrecognizable. The undomesticated banana was small and pudgy. But more than anything, it was studded with large, tough seeds that left very little room for the actual fruit flesh. In effect, the undomesticated banana was inedible.

Back then, the undomesticated banana dominated the banana populations. Once in a very rare while, however, hunter-gatherers would chance upon a banana plant that bore long, healthy fruits that shone a vibrant yellow. Most strikingly, the fruits were seedless, and they were delicious.

As far as historians are concerned, this is what sparked the countless and complex waves of domestication.

While records are unclear, the first banana domestication events took place in the Kuk valley in Papua New Guinea and hopped all the way to the Philippines by around 5,000 BCE. From here, the pattern of spread begins to look more like a complicated web than a wave, partly due to reintroduction and the rise of other domesticated varieties.

What is certain, however, is since then humans have had an impressive history of domesticating the banana plant and other agriculturally important crops. So much so that today, regular people will be hard-pressed to describe, much more locate, an undomesticated banana.

From its pre-BCE dominion, the undomesticated banana is now dwarfed in population by its yellow, seedless cousin.

Conventional plant breeding

Technically speaking, the domesticated, edible banana is a mutant of the undomesticated, inedible banana; they are products of rare genetic mutations. This explains why they were once incredibly hard to find.

These mutant bananas were seedless, which posed a problem to the early hunter-gatherers: they were, essentially, sterile. As a workaround for this, they unwittingly discovered how to reproduce plants asexually, vegetatively.

They removed the offshoots from the mother stem and replanted them independently, thus creating a new plant which is, theoretically, genetically identical to the original plant.

Thus, through human intervention and ingenuity, and through this domestication process, we have successfully selected traits for the edible banana and elevated it to its current worldwide status.

At its core, the domestication process is considered as a conventional technique of plant breeding.

Citing from the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), Dr. Lourdes Taylo, of the Crop Science Cluster at the University of the Philippine Los Baños explains: “Conventional plant breeding has been around for thousands of years and is still used today.

“Since agriculture began, farmers have been altering the genetic makeup of the crops they grow depending on trial-and-error through selection of the best plants and seeds and saving them for the next season.”

Aside from specifically segregating and selecting for the desirable traits, conventional plant breeding also includes crop improvement, Dr. Taylo explains.

“Early farmers also discovered how some plants could be cross-pollinated to combine the desirable characteristics of the parent plants in their offspring.”

And cross-pollinate they did. The early hunter-gatherers indeed mixed-and-matched the different varieties of the sterile banana, refining what was already refined and creating new hybrid varieties in the process.

Most probably, the different varieties of bananas we see in supermarkets today are the long-removed descendants of the early hybrid products.

So, for thousands of years, maybe even since the birth of agriculture, we have already been altering the genetic make-up of plants around us for our benefit. While this has been mostly successful, it has had its roadblocks.

Genetic engineering an improvement in conventional breeding

Central to the entire domestication process is the production of pure crop lines which are genetically homogeneous for a particular trait. That is, a specific quality in succeeding generations will almost perfectly reflect that in the original generation.

The problem with pure crop lines is that they are very difficult, tedious, and time-consuming to produce. In the very rare occasions that the mutant bananas, for instance, would appear, the early hunter-gatherers would have to replant the stems of the sweetest, yellowest, healthiest plant.

They would then have to wait through an entire reproduction cycle. In the group of offspring that they get, only a few would be mutants. From the mutants, they would need to repeat the entire process all over again, and consistently over several years, maybe even decades, to produce near-pure populations of mutant bananas.

While such a drawn-out process is theoretically enough to select for a particular trait, things get much more complex when there is more than one target trait, as in the case of crop improvement.

In its absolute simplest form, hybridization between crops will first require two pure crop lines that have been selected for corresponding traits.

When both crops are combined, either through cross-pollination or other asexual methods like grafting, it is theoretically expected that at least some of the following generation will have both desired traits. These can then be further self-bred to produce a pure line.

A complex process

If it looks complicated on paper, it’s definitely much more complex in the field. With many different confounding, and sometimes detrimental, factors like weather and plant diseases, the conventional plant breeding process can clock in years in duration.

What this means for us is that food becomes much less accessible. The long and slow process of plant breeding makes it much less capable of adjusting to unforeseen events like natural calamities and plant disease outbreaks and puts a relatively low ceiling on the productivity and efficiency of the process.

With the world that we have now, this simply will not do. We need a strong agricultural base that can keep up with the inflating human population and provide it with enough food.

Biotechnology to meet growing demand for food

As Dr. Taylo puts it: “But times change and people grow. By 2015, the human population is estimated to reach 10 billion. With a geometric increase in population and limited arable land resource, how can we produce more crops to feed a bloating human population at quicker time?”

The answer, she continues, is provided by biotechnology. As science moves forward and into the molecular paradigm, we uncover new information and acquire new techniques that will allow us to create a more sustainable and sustaining agriculture scene.

One such technique is genetic engineering, popularly known to be employed in creating genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. While it has seen its fair share of controversy and skepticism, Dr. Taylo asserts that genetic engineering has been an invaluable addition to agriculture.

She continues: “With the advancement of science using modern crop biotechnology, precision agriculture comes into the picture.” And biotechnology, she concludes, is an effective, directed, and safe way to achieve the desired results