Banana Fungus, Insect Outbreak Threaten Global Supply


Banana lovers better satiate their appetites now. The world's supply of the fruit is under attack.

According to Scientific American, strains of a particular soil fungus -- Fusarium oxysporum f. sp. cubense, or Foc -- have struck a key variety of banana grown for export in Mozambique and Jordan. Scientists fear that if the banana fungus spreads further, the popular Cavendish banana could become critically threatened.

The fungus, which has been found on several plantations, causes the incurable Panama disease, or Fusarium wilt, that rots bananas. In the 1950s, another strain of the banana fungus nearly wiped out the Gros Michel cultivar, once as common as the Cavendish variety. After the fungus decimated banana populations in Central and South America, producers switched to the Cavendish, which was resistant to the strain of fungus at the time.

But scientists have long feared that the Tropical Race 4 strain of the fungus -- previously confined to areas of Asia and Australia -- would eventually spread around the world and wipe out the Cavendish supply, just as a previous strain did to the Gros Michel banana.

"Given today's modes of travel, there's almost no doubt that it will hit the major Cavendish crops," Randy Ploetz, a plant pathologist at the University of Florida who studied the new strain of fungus, told Popular Science back in 2008.

With instances of the banana fungus recently popping up in the Middle East and southeast Africa, it seems it may not be long before Foc overtakes plantations in Latin America.

For his book Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World, author Dan Koeppel spoke to several banana researchers who agreed it was only a matter of "when" bananas would be destroyed by this fungus.

"It only takes a single clump of contaminated dirt, literally, to get this thing rampaging across entire continents," Koeppel said in an interview with NPR.

However, the fungus is not the only threat to the world's supply of bananas. Last week, Costa Rica declared a "banana emergency" due to an outbreak of insects that feed on the fruit and leave unsightly blemishes. Though the attacked bananas are still edible, they are not aesthetically suitable for export, which is a major cash cow for the Latin American country.

Magda González, director of the Agriculture and Livestock Ministry’s State Phytosanitary Services, blames climate change for the country's pest problem.

“Climate change, by affecting temperature, favors the conditions under which [the insects] reproduce," González recently told The Tico Times.

To combat the mealybugs and scale insects, banana producers in Costa Rica will be allowed to use pesticides and biological control agents on their crops. However, to fend off the possible fungal attack on Cavendish populations, the answer may be to use a method that's worked in the past: Find a fungus-resistant banana variety to replace the vulnerable crop.

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