Your Favorite Banana Is Facing Extinction As Deadly Fungus Spreads

The world's most popular banana, the Cavendish, is under serious threat from the seemingly unstoppable Panama disease.
The Cavendish, the world's most popular banana, is facing extinction.
The Cavendish, the world's most popular banana, is facing extinction.
Credit: Associated Press

One of the world’s most popular fruits may go extinct -- yet again.

Before 1960, your grandparents and great-grandparents were eating better bananas. Called Gros Michel, they were tastier, bigger and more resilient than the bananas found in supermarkets worldwide today.

It has a more robust taste,” said Dan Koeppel, author of “Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World” of the yummier yellow fruit. “It’s more creamy.”

So why can’t we too enjoy the robust creaminess of the Gros Michel, once the world's export banana? Turns out, the species went virtually extinct in the 1960s thanks to an invasive and incurable fungus that wiped out most Gros Michel plantations around the world.

That explains how the Cavendish -- the blander banana we now eat -- grew in prominence. It tasted worse and was less hardy than the Gros Michel, but the species seemed able to resist the fungal invasion, known as “Panama disease.”

That is, it was able to.

Now, a newer, more virulent strain of Panama disease is wreaking that same havoc on the Cavendish and experts fear the banana we know and frequently devour may meet the same fate as the Gros Michel.

According to a study published on Nov. 19 in the journal PLOS Pathogens, the newer strain of the disease, known as Tropical Race 4, has been spreading like wildfire across Cavendish plantations around the world.

And, worryingly, no one seems to know how to stop it.

Tropical Race 4 has actually been plaguing the Cavendish for several decades, but largely contained to East Asia and Southeast Asia.

Since 2013, however, Tropical Race 4 has spread to areas in several continents, including parts of South Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Australia despite efforts to contain the disease, the study said.

“This research demonstrates that the quarantine measures and information provided around the globe apparently have not had the desired effect,” noted study co-author Gert Kema, a banana expert at Wageningen University in The Netherlands, per a news release.

Quarantine measures are said to be the the only known way to combat Panama disease. The lethal fungus travels up the plant’s roots and infests entire plantations. Plots are then contaminated for many years.

A Costa Rican farmer cuts weeds on a banana plantation in 2004.
A Costa Rican farmer cuts weeds on a banana plantation in 2004.
Credit: Associated Press

The Cavendish is a monoculture, which means the plants are all clones of one another and have no genetic diversity. As Quartz explains, “since they can’t sexually reproduce, they also can’t evolve, leaving them defenseless against disease.” The same was true of the Gros Michel, which is how that entire species was essentially wiped out.

For now, Tropical Race 4 has yet to land in Latin America, where more than three-fifths of the world’s exported bananas are grown. However, given how the fungus has managed to jump continents in recent years and the apparent inability to adequately quarantine the disease, it seems inevitable that Tropical Race 4 will eventually ravage plantations there too -- unless a real solution is found.

A worker cuts bananas at a banana plantation in Panama in 2003.
A worker cuts bananas at a banana plantation in Panama in 2003.
Credit: Associated Press

If the banana industry does collapse, there will be devastating ramifications.

Not only is it a multi-billion dollar industry, but Cavendish bananas are also an important source of nourishment for hundreds of millions of people worldwide.

In Africa, for instance, “bananas are critical for food security and income generation for more than 100 million people,” George Mahuku, senior plant pathologist for the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, told CNN.

As Quartz points out, “most bananas are grown by small-time farmers in the many poor countries where they’re a staple crop. Worldwide, Tropical Race 4 is able to kill more than four-fifths of those bananas poor farming communities rely on for food.”

Though the Gros Michel was replaced by the Cavendish, finding another banana replacement won't be as easy.

Hundreds of varieties of wild bananas are believed to exist, but as noted earlier this year, “many of these varieties are so different as to be almost unrecognizable, others are finicky about how they grow, still others are almost impossible to transport, some need to be cooked before they are eaten ... [and] then there’s the question of how safe these new varieties would even be.”

To this end, scientists are working to develop a genetically modified version of the Cavendish that would be similar to the banana we know but that could resist Panama disease.

Like other GMO foods, however, there are concerns surrounding this plan.

In a 2008 op-ed for The New York Times, author Dan Koeppel said humans may need to admit defeat in the face of Panama disease's steady spread, and prepare to say goodbye to the beloved banana.

“Perhaps it’s time we recognize bananas for what they are: an exotic fruit that, some day soon, may slip beyond our reach,” he wrote.

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