Bananas are astonishingly cheap and plentiful. Compared to both apples and oranges, bananas are sold at a retail price that is approximately half of what is asked for these two ubiquitous fruits, and because of this (in part), Americans eat more bananas each year than apples and oranges combined. But Americans, while a sizable market for bananas, are not the only country eating bananas with abandon. Bananas are shipped around the globe, and make up a nutritional staple for much of the developing world. While Latin America was, for a longtime, the leader in banana production (giving birth to the moniker “Banana Republic” – the political designate, not the clothing store) currently India, China, and the Philippines lead the world in banana production with millions of metric tons of yellow fruit stretching across oceans like a potassium-rich circuitry (bananas are well known for their high potassium content, which make them slightly radioactive as well). Bananas are nutritious, inexpensive, and abundant and may very well be on their way to extinction.
Let me explain. As covered in Dan Koeppel’s excellent investigative 2008 book, Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World, and more recently the New Yorker profile written by Mike Peed, Bananas are being threatened by a devastating blight that may drastically change the identity and accessibility of our beloved banana. While more than a thousand varieties of bananas are available worldwide, the vast majority of the bananas consumed today are of the Cavendish variety. The Cavendish is a high yield variety, rich in vitamins B, and C and is also very cheap. But it is because they are so easy to transport, and their relative resistance to disease, that make them the leading banana throughout the world, not their flavor. Most supermarkets stock several varieties of apples, oranges, and even pears, but for the most part, when it comes to bananas, there is only one – the Cavendish.
While the story of the Cavendish monoculture is a hugely remarkable one (I urge you to read the Dan Koeppel book if you are interested) and the instance of Cavendish domination is relatively recent, as the Gros Michel variety that preceded it was plagued by disease and left as economically unviable, it is important to understand that domesticated bananas don’t have seeds, or pollen and are effectively clones. This means that one banana that you eat today, is essentially exactly the same banana you may eat tomorrow or a year from now. This makes them an incredibly consistent product, but also enormously susceptible to disease – namely a virulent disease called Tropical Race Four (Tropical Race One wiped out the Gros Michel in the 1950s) that is spreading throughout the world and set to wipe out the Cavendish banana.
Most scientists say it is not a matter of “if” but a matter of “when” the Cavendish will be wiped out (to be clear, the Cavendish, along with its predecessor the Gros Michel, are not, and will not be entirely extinct, but will no longer be able to be grown as nearly as widely and therefore will not satisfy the world hunger for bananas). So scientists are working on two fronts: to battle the ever-spreading Tropical Race Four disease and to genetically engineer a new super banana variety that will show resistance to such strains of disease.
The odds are that scientists will likely be more successful in engineering a new variety of banana well before they are able to contain and cure the disease that is decimating banana plantations the world over. This sort of innovation will likely employ the use of, not just genetic engineering, but genetic modification (GM), while will undoubtedly raise the ire and concern of many consumers. But is it worth it to save the widely loved banana (hell, they are already radioactive)? Many scientists claim that because bananas are sterile clones to begin with, that there exist little risk to other crops from GM experimentation, as they are unable to cross-pollinate. Still, if science brings us a better and brighter banana, able to stand up to Tropical Race One through Four, isn’t it just a matter of time before another strain of disease attacks this monoculture? Shouldn’t the prospect of crop diversity be brought into the conversation? Or is the prospect of living without your daily banana too much of a price to pay?