New Top Banana?

It seems the media has a hard time talking about any subject in non-hysterical terms, and bananas are no different. Every so often you see a story pop up in the food press about the imminent “extinction” of the banana. What’s the real story here? Well my friends, I’m about to tell you.

What food alarmists are referring to is a particular variety of banana known as the Cavendish. The Cavendish is the banana we all know and love, and has been the number one banana cultivar ever since a fungus known as Panama Disease knocked out the previous holder of the title back in the early 1960’s. That banana was called the Gros Michel, or “Big Michael”, and while it’s still grown here and there, it’s the Cavendish that truly dominates the American and European markets (some 100 billion of them are eaten around the word every year). Panama Disease, as I mentioned, is a fungus. It lives in soil and infects banana plants via their root systems. Once inside, it clogs up water vessels causing the plant to wilt and die. And while the fungus was always hell on the Gros Michel, only Cavendish plants that grew in relatively cool climates were subject to the disease.

That all changed in the early 90’s when a new type of Panama Disease was discovered in Southeast Asia called Race 4. This strain could kill Cavendish plants in any climate, and proceeded to do so around the Southeast Asian rim. So far, it has yet to reach the so-called “banana basket” of Central America, though many fear it could arrive there some day, tracked in on some careless traveler’s shoes. Should that happen there’s really nothing that can be done about it.

Like more than a few popular food crops, top commercial banana breeds lack genetic diversity. Thousands of years of selective breeding has long since deprived them of their seed-producing abilities. Nowadays they’re reproduced via cuttings, which means that plants of a given banana breed are all exact clones of one other. A disease that can take one down can take them all down. So, the Cavendish is certainly at risk. And while Race 4 could never totally wipe it out, it could decimate enough acreage so that the Cavendish could never fully meet market demands.

The good news is that there are some 500 other breeds of edible bananas in the world, very few of which are susceptible to Panama Disease. True, they might not all be as big, bright and beautiful as the Cavendish, but more than a few of them taste a heck of a lot better. On any given day, you can probably find one or two of them at your local grocery store. In addition to all this wondrous diversity, scientists are at this moment furiously splicing Cavendish genes in an effort to produce Race 4-resistant plants (much progress, I’m told, is being made). So is there risk to the Cavendish? Yes. Does this mean disaster for all freedom-loving banana eaters around the globe? Absolutely not. The odds that we’ll have to do without sliced bananas on our cheerios are nil.

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