The world’s most popular varietal fruit is doomed.
Bananas are the most widely purchased fruit in the US and, more importantly, an important source of nutrition and income through the world. The are easily grown, easily stored and the ripening can be manipulated. The are non seasonal, so available all year round.
Commercially, Bananas are reproduced out asexually; a part of their root is cut and replanted. So as a result the entire banana crop is clones, identical to a plant, taken from Asia and brought to the Caribbean 175 years ago. They have same genes and this lack of genetic variety makes them particularly susceptible to diseases. A disease called fusarium wilt – colloquially Panama Disease – has been spreading across the globe and attacking banana production. Almost all commercial production of bananas is a variety called Cavendish. Thanks to recent mutations in Fusarium, Cavendish corps are succumbing to the disease and there is nothing, it seems, that can stop it. But it is a story that has been told before.
Cavendish Bananas had a very quiet childhood of about 100 years, as the dominant banana in the world was a variety called Gros Michele. When the term Banana Republic was coined, they were talking about a different banana. Gros Michele had a good run until Fusarium started to wipe out crops in the 1920s. (The song ‘Yes, We have No Bananas‘ was written during a spot shortage of bananas due to the fungus). Producers managed the disease for a while, mostly by moving crop locations, but by the late 1950s, it became obvious that Gros Michele was doomed. Enter the Cavendish. It is now by far the most grown banana in the world.
There is no obvious replacement for the Cavendish. Old fashioned hybridization is being tried but as of yet no clear successor has emerged. Banana fans may be forced to adapt to a banana that is shaped differently or has a color different than the iconic yellow. There is substantial research being done using gene splicing and other manipulation, but the resistance to genetically modified organisms would have to be overcome.
For the moment, supplies are strong and prices are low. But by all accounts, this won’t last. The Cavendish’s days are numbered.