Bananas Under Threat

I will admit, I’ve known about the story encapsulated in this post for quite a while now but I am yet to see any serious mobilisation of resources in order to combat the threat posed to the Banana. It is 1903 and everybody’s favourite banana variety the Gros Michel is going strong. Within 50 years this banana variety will have been driven to near extinction by Panama disease Race 1. It is going to cost the industry $2.3 billion ($18.2 billion in today’s terms) in damages and tear the heart out of the global banana export industry. How did the industry overcome this? Fortunately, for the industry, another variety of banana (the Cavendish) was found to be resistant to Panama disease Race 1 and so production was switched over to this variety. In fact 99% of the bananas consumed today are of the Cavendish variety. So that’s it, case closed. Right?

Unfortunately that seems not to be the end of the story, in fact, it merely marked the end of the first chapter. Today, a new variety of Panama disease (this time Race 4) coupled with Black Sigatoka disease poses a serious threat to the Cavendish. Black Sigatoka is currently kept at bay with fungicide sprays which are applied up to 40 times a year. The new strain of Panama disease was discovered in 1992 in Southeast Asia and since then thousands of hectares of Cavendish plantations have suffered irreparable damage. The total cost of the damages has already surpassed the $400 million mark. Why are bananas so susceptible to the new strain of Panama disease? The Cavendish is a mutant variety of a wild banana that does not produce seeds, whilst this makes it great to eat it makes it difficult to farm. It has to be grown from cuttings rather than seeds and this means that the Cavendish is a cloned crop where each individual has the exact same resistance to Panama disease as the others in the plantation. Thanks to this Panama disease can spread rapidly and affect vast swathes of plantation with little in the way of resistance.

The bananas exported to stores globally only equates to 15% of the total production, the other 85% is used for local consumption. Something like half a billion people in Africa and Asia depend on the banana as a staple part of their diets. Panama disease not only inconveniences the export market it is of serious concern to the long term food security of some of the poorest regions on Earth. Whilst it seems a fight that will be difficult to win, Honduran scientists have managed to isolate 15 Cavendish seeds for breeding. They managed this by peeling and sieving 400 tonnes of bananas (not a job I would like to do) in the hope that they may be able to generate a fungus-resistant variety which could be grown conventionally.

Sources

  1. Panama Disease
  2. How the global banana industry is killing the world’s favorite fruit
  3. Can science save man’s favorite banana from extinction?
  4. Yes – in 10 years we may have no bananas
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