Monocropped Bananas Flirting with Extinction


In a small market on the South Pacific island of Raiatea, the women laughed in astonishment when I told them we had only one variety of banana in Canada. As I spoke to them in fractured French, they offered me a tiny brown-skinned banana with a buttery texture. By the time our conversation ended, they had given me samples of half a dozen varieties, assuring me there were lots of others, though nowhere near as many as when they were girls.

Now the Cavendish, the sole banana widely available in North America, may disappear from our grocery shelves. In an interview for National Public Radio, banana expert Dan Koeppel talkes about the impact of monoculture and why our insisting on more varieties may be the only thing that will save the banana split.

The last monocropped banana, the tastier Gros Michel, succumbed to Panama disease (a fungal wilt) during the first half of the 20th century. That’s when the Cavendish came to the fore, because of its resistance to the blight and other common banana diseases.

Writing in The Scientist, Koppel describes the work of Randy Ploetz (Tropical Research and Education Center, University of Florida), who discovered in the late 1980s that a new strain of Panama disease was attacking the Cavendish. Called Tropical Race 4, it “has spread across Asia, into the Pacific, and to Australia, where it has devastated the island country’s banana industry.”

Ploetz predicts it will hit America’s banana supplier, Latin America. No one can say when it will arrive, but it can spread via “no more than a speck of dirt on a shoe or a tool.” Randy Ploetz has developed a means of fighting Race 4 when it arrives in Latin America, but concedes it is a stopgap solution. It will buy time while other commercially viable varieties are developed or the Cavendish is genetically modified to resist the disease.

The long-term solution is biodiversity. Koppel writes, “A more diverse banana harvest would allow farmers to isolate susceptible bananas, surrounding them with more resistant varieties. If the solution ends up being a Cavendish stand-in that is resistant to both strains, on the other hand, the predicament of the banana monoculture—with its vulnerability to old, new and yet-to-be discovered pathogens—would continue.

So next time you pick up a bunch of bright yellow bananas, ask the produce manager for more variety. Your banana split might just depend on that.


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Photos from Cathryn Wellner


Jim Ven
Jim Vabout a year ago

thanks for sharing.

Ernest Roth
Ernest R5 years ago

@ Yvette T. “the largest contributor to all of our woes” No Yvette, e the largest contributor is NOT eating meat , it is overpopulation from which all destruction flows. Bummer. We were just assured that world hunger was decreasing. Now we hear that due to climate change we will have to rely on bananas for food, but the Cavendish monoculture is “ in danger of extinction” while soybeans are now nearly all Monsanto’s GM treats. Will this also affect the pundits that claim climate change doesn’t exist? How about the people that claim that “growth” is necessary for a thriving economy? Ever heard of Bangladesh? THERE ARE TOO MANY PEOPLE and hope is the last thing to go.

Melinda K.
Past Member 6 years ago

monoculture is one of the big issues facing the reduction in world food bio-diversity. If you want to grow your own food make sure you by open pollinated seeds, not the hybrid F1 seeds which are owned by corporations. Organic open-pollinated seeds, particularly heirloom or vintage 'old time' seeds are helping preserve food biodiversity for future generations.

K s Goh
KS Goh6 years ago

Thanks for the article.

Carmen n.
Carmen n6 years ago

@Christopher Joh S: Platanutres! Yum! I hadn't thought of those in ages! I remember waiting for the bus after school in Santurce, Puerto Rico in the fifties, spending my nickel everyday on a bag of platanutres at the bus stop... Couldn't eat them now, alas... no teeth!

Beverly G.
bev g6 years ago


Jo Asprec
Jo Asprec6 years ago

Yes! Let's cultivate more banana varieties!

Elisabeth T.
Elisabeth T6 years ago

Interesting article, thank you..

Jose Ramon Fisher Rodrigu

The subjugation of biodiversity to market forces is a very worrisome issue in my opinion. We are running the risk of entire plant species going extinct because they don't sell. And I'm glad I'm not the only Puerto Rican commenting here.

Catt R.
Catt R6 years ago

tracy m. "I really question this statement..I see and purchase many varieties of Banana in my local markets. Where does one find only the Cavendish available?"

west coast of north america, I have lived in Calif, Ore, Wash, and B.C. and that is what we get, only they do not call it Cavendish, it is simply labeled 'banana'. I may have seen other 'banana-like' fruits4 or 5 times in my fifty plus years (other than plantain, which most here think exotic)