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Get Ready to Say Goodbye to Bananas

Get Ready to Say Goodbye to Bananas

Who doesn’t love a nice banana? They’re tasty portable snacks, they make a great daiquiri, and they’re wonderful additions to a green smoothie or bowl of oatmeal. Well, eat your fill now, because if history is any indicator, global banana production may soon be in serious jeopardy.

The culprit is disease. Specifically, a strain of a tropical fungus is targeting the most popular form of banana, and there is currently no effective treatment.

A fungus known as Fusarium wilt Tropical Race 4 (TR4) is decimating banana crops in key locations around the world according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). TR4 spreads via soil, attacking plants at their roots and turning the core of the banana plant to a black mushy mess. If growers don’t find a way to quickly contain the spread of TR4, the ramifications for the banana industry could be dire.

TR4 first appeared in Asia in the 1990s. Inexorably it spread through Southeast Asia, destroying hundreds of thousands of acres of banana crops throughout Australia, Malaysia, China, the Philippines and Indonesia. TR4 spreads via water droplets, dirt on shoes and equipment, and any other method that allows soil to travel from point A to point B.

The Most Popular Type Banana is Most at Risk

The type of banana most of us know and love today is the Cavendish. This type comprises about 95 percent of the bananas imported to North America and Europe. Unfortunately, the Cavendish banana is defenseless against TR4. There’s little growers can do to protect crops once TR4 insinuates itself into the soil and begins its path of destruction.

The problem breaks down to these factors, says the FAO:

  • The banana industry has “no viable fully effective treatment” to control TR4 in the field
  • Fungus spores remain viable within soil for decades
  • The industry currently has no alternate banana variety resistant to TR4 that could replace the Cavendish
  • More research is needed to understand and combat TR4
  • The only defenses are prevention and containment of infested soil and plants

Freshly picked bananas

Scientists have seen this “banana-geddon” devastation before. In the 1950s, the most popular banana was the Gros Michel — that is, until an earlier form of this fungus took hold and almost crushed the industry. Growers were forced to switch to the more resistant Cavendish. It’s been the world’s most-exported banana since that time.

“The Cavendish variety has been very successful in fighting against this disease we must acknowledge, but this is a biological cycle,” FAO’s Fazil Dusunceli told Bloomberg.com. ”For any crop, once we develop a cultivar, then the disease develops more aggressive pathogenic strains against that crop in time. Sometimes it takes a few years, sometimes it takes decades.”

Dusunceli acknowledges this situation “is serious for the medium term, but at the same time we should avoid panicking too.”

TR4: On the Move Across the Globe

Serious concern is more than justified, though. TR4 is suddenly on the move. There is evidence this fungus has migrated from Southeast Asia to infect banana crops in Jordan and Mozambique. That, in itself, is bad enough. If TR4 makes it to banana plantations in Costa Rica, Ecuador or Colombia, however, the problem becomes exponentially more serious.

TR4 can ravage a banana plantation in as little as two or three years. It lives in soil for 30 years or more. Unfortunately, some believe TR4 may already have a foothold in Latin America.

“If [TR4] is in Latin America, it is going to be a disaster, whatever the multinationals do,” Professor Rony Swennen of the Leuven University in Belgium told the Belfast Telegraph. “Teams of workers move across different countries. The risk is it is going to spread like a bush fire.”

Bananas on the plant

Bananas are a Food Staple for Millions Worldwide

Having no bananas would be an unfortunate inconvenience for Americans, but for millions around the world who depend on them as a primary food source, it would be disastrous.

Bananas are the eighth most important food crop in the world. They are the fourth most important for undeveloped countries, just after rice, wheat and maize. Bananas provide one third of the daily caloric intake for approximately 410 million people around the world. In East Africa, for example, bananas are the main food staple for fully half of the entire population.

According to the FAO:

In view of the challenges associated with control of the disease and the risk posed to the global banana supply, it is evident that a concerted effort is required from industry, research institutions, government and international organizations to prevent spread of the disease.

Let’s hope the experts figure out pretty quickly how to contain TR4. Let’s also hope someone finds or develops an alternative TR4-resistant variety of banana. It may have to take the place of the beloved Cavendish.

With TR4 on the move, such a transition may have to happen soon. Globally, survival of the banana is of critical importance to millions. Populations who depend on bananas for sustenance will suffer greatly if we do not succeed.

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Photo credit (all images): Thinkstock

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190 comments

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1:22PM PDT on Jul 22, 2014

Actually, I think the rainforests would be much better off without the big monocultural plantations — but I’m sure that the big growers will find a way to keep them going, as there’s just too much money to be made. As mentioned, the small-scale growers, growing under the shade of the canopy and organically, are not heavily impacted by the fungus. That’s the sustainable future for bananas, if companies are willing to embrace more labor (jobs!), lower profit margins and regrowing the forests they cleared for the full-sun, monoculture plantations.

People need to get used to the idea that we can’t have every little thing we like, shipped thousands of miles, grown and harvested with massive, unsustainable infrastructure. Want bananas? Buy them dried, from organic, shade-grown operations. Otherwise, they have been grown on destroyed rainforest under mostly horrible labor conditions. A new cultivar won’t change that.

And let me be clear: millions of people will not starve. The bananas that people truly depend on are largely grown locally, in small-scale operations that won’t be affected. It is the massive plantation growers who are scrambling — the ones shipping bananas thousand of miles to wealthy northerners.

4:57PM PDT on Jul 21, 2014

This could end disastrously!! I hope there's a new cultivar that can take its place, FAST! And as flavorful!!

1:25PM PDT on Jul 15, 2014

Find a natural herbicide for this.

3:55AM PDT on Jul 7, 2014

I just started eating bananas again after a long, long time! I sure hope they find something to knock out this TR4 disease!!

5:49AM PDT on May 7, 2014

Hope this problem can be dealt with, we don`t want a world without bananas!

9:24AM PDT on Apr 26, 2014

Actually, the “farmers” are not the locals. The locals are hired to pick and process the bananas. These are very hard jobs to do, with constant exposure to chemicals (even in the processing) and dangers everywhere (just walking in the plantations can be extremely hazardous after a rain), including repetitive-motion problems.

The “farmers”, that is, Dole, Chaquita, Del Monte and their “independent” growers (who are not really independent at all) are not suffering and never will. The truly-small-scale growers won’t have nearly the problems with the fungus as the large plantations.

Bananas will *never* go extinct. The fungus only effects the massive monocultures. The shade-grown, organic growers are not effected nearly as much. As well, there are dozens of varieties of bananas around the world that are not effected. Varieties that are closer to the original varieties are also not effected.

tim keating

2:28AM PDT on Apr 25, 2014

Problems caused by monoculture again.

All the herbicides and chemicals cant rid them of this fungus - there must be thousands of farmers and their families who are suffering economically...

3:33PM PDT on Apr 24, 2014

I buy small locally grown bananas that are not sprayed and chilled to be sent off to the big cities - only to be shipped back to us via the supermarket chains.

10:13AM PDT on Apr 24, 2014

I'll be afraid of losing bananas in my diet once they stop being so relatively cheap. When something starts being produced less and less when it's in high demand, price goes up.

As of right now, I can get bananas for about $0.49 a pound. I'm not worried (yet).

5:46AM PDT on Apr 24, 2014

Oh No. I hope this never happens.

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