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The Bananapocalypse Is Nigh

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The bananapocalypse is coming. That’s the likelihood that sometime in the next decade, bananas may disappear, victims of a fungal pathogen known as Panama Disease. The disease is on the march throughout the world, threatening the future of the world’s most popular fruit.

Panama Disease may be the cause of this disaster, but it’s also a symptom of a bigger problem afflicting global agriculture: a failure to diversify. For the past couple of centuries, the tendency has been to adopt a single reputable cultivar and — literally — bet the farm on it.

The most devastating case study in the dangers of monoculture comes from Ireland in the 1840s. After the discovery of potatoes in the New World, the Irish began cultivating them en masse. But while the Incas and other peoples had cultivated thousands of varieties of potatoes, the Irish only grew three kinds, mostly a homely variety known as the “Lumper.”

This particular potato proved remarkably productive. But it was vulnerable to a pathogen known as Phytophthora infestans, better known as potato blight. In 1845, the organism destroyed that year’s crop of Lumpers, and then raged across the rest of Europe. It’s estimated that a million people died of starvation in Ireland alone, with another 2 million people emigrating out of desperation.

Despite this object lesson in the dangers of monoculture, farmers planting crops often favored a handful of trusted varieties.  This was a rational choice, particularly for growers of crops destined for global markets, where economies of scale tended to privilege homogeneity over diversity. But this choice can end badly.

And so it was with the banana. Though bananas come in hundreds of shapes, sizes, colors and flavor profiles, a single cultivar became the fruit of the masses in the late 19th century: the Gros Michel banana, otherwise known as Big Mike. This particular breed, which originated in Southeast Asia, became a star commercial crop.

Big Mike had a lot going for it: enormous bunches of tasty, sweet bananas, resistance to bruising and an ability to stay fresh even when thrown in the sweltering hold of a ship. The big banana companies like United Fruit planted Gros Michel on sprawling plantations throughout Latin America and the Caribbean.

Like most edible bananas, Big Mike was sterile, and growers propagated it by taking a cutting that would become the basis of a new plant. Each banana plantation, then, was populated not only with a single variety of banana, but with bananas that had the exact same genetic material as one another. This was monoculture taken to an extreme.

At the very same time that this cultivar became the gold standard for banana connoisseurs, some of the plants began expiring , swiftly turning brown beginning with the bottom leaves and proceeding to the top, before the entire plant would topple over, dead. Though growers didn’t know what hit them at first, they eventually discovered the cause of the wilt: a fungus known as Fusarium cubense.

Though it first surfaced in Australia, it devastated banana plantations in Panama, and soon the dreaded banana wilt came to be known as Panama Disease. It resisted fungicides, and once established in a plantation, it sowed devastation. Worse, soil contaminated with the fungus would remain toxic for decades, forcing growers to abandon prime plantation lands.

Growers initially tried to outrun fusarium wilt, clear-cutting tropical forests and laying out new plantations to harbor their Big Mikes. But the fungus followed them. By the 1920s, banana shortages had become a growing problem (you can thank the fusarium wilt for that decade’s hit song, “Yes! We Have No Bananas”).

The big fruit companies sought to find a replacement. United Fruit conducted extensive trials in the 1920s, but balked at the idea of introducing new varieties into the market. Consumers would only eat Big Mikes, the thinking went, and trying to change that would be the death of the company.

United Fruit tried to protect the Big Mike. It flooded infected fields in the mistaken belief this would sweep away the fungus. Instead, it destroyed microbial competitors and the fungus returned with startling ferocity.

Then a smaller company, Standard Fruit, seeing the writing on the wall, began experimenting with a new family of bananas.

These bananas, known as Cavendish, had been named after William Cavendish, the Duke of Devonshire, who had secured a specimen of the cultivar around 1834. Cavendish, a serious horticulturalist, disseminated cuttings of the banana that would soon bear his name, and it soon spread throughout much of the world, even if it didn’t become a commercial cultivar. Like its aristocratic patron, the Cavendish was a bit of a hothouse flower: it bruised easily and could spoil in the hold of a ship.

Standard Fruit nonetheless wagered that the Cavendish was the heir to Big Mike and devised cushioned boxes to protect the bananas from damage during transit; they also began using refrigeration to keep the delicate bananas fresh. Customers warmed to the Cavendish, though United Fruit remained skeptical. One executive in Honduras claimed that “varieties is a dirty word” when it came to bananas in big city markets of the U.S. Nonetheless, United Fruit bowed to the inevitable in 1962, ending its reliance on Big Mike.

But rather than trying to diversify the banana market, they opted to go with the Cavendish family — and only the Cavendish — a strategy that the leading authority on the disease, Robert Stover, warned could lead to disaster if the Cavendish proved vulnerable to new strains of the fungus.

Sure enough, a few years later a new variant of Panama Disease dubbed TR4 began wreaking havoc on Cavendish plantations in Southeast Asia. Now the demise of the Cavendish banana is only a matter of time. When that happens, the world will need a replacement.

This time around, variety shouldn’t be a dirty word. The billions of people who consume bananas can tolerate a few choices. If growers can live with that, too, we’ll all be better off next time a crippling disease threatens our favorite fruit.


13 Comments on "The Bananapocalypse Is Nigh"

  1. Makati1 on Sat, 23rd Dec 2017 5:45 pm 

    I remember the Big Mike bananas in my youth. Then the Cavendish. Now I live where there are at least 10 kinds of bananas. Most grow on the farm.

  2. Duncan Idaho on Sat, 23rd Dec 2017 6:02 pm 

    Then the Cavendish.
    One of my favorites, but on the way out.
    Even in Maui I had many varieties.

  3. DerHundistlos on Sat, 23rd Dec 2017 6:25 pm 

    @ Mak

    Sure there exists banana varieties; however, in terms of flavor they are bland compared to now extinct older varieties.

    The extinctions will continue so long as we continue the same farming techniques. Modern agriculture demands large expanses of mono-culture with no diversification and no time for the land to rest. This on top of the global catastrophe of soil erosion. Nothing is left for nature. The bananas are wrapped in plastic as they grow to prevent, God forbid, a bird from eating one.

  4. Go Speed Racer on Sat, 23rd Dec 2017 6:35 pm 

    The author of this article
    has gone bananas.

  5. JuanP on Sat, 23rd Dec 2017 7:05 pm 

    I am currently growing 14 different banana cultivars in South Florida and constantly adding more. For those of you interested in growing exotic bananas I recommend purchasing them from “Going Bananas” in Homestead. They have a great variety, good prices, and they will ship them to you.

  6. Go Speed Racer on Sat, 23rd Dec 2017 9:33 pm 

    The best usage of bananas,
    is 2% Milk and Rice Krispies,
    then slice the bananas each round
    piece about 1/4″ thick …
    nowadays the major brands of cereal
    are all Bayer-Monsanto poisoned, so
    get yourself some organic rice krispies
    before doing this.

    If we run out of bananas, this means we
    could be going thru peak bananas this
    very moment. We may have to develop
    synthetic banana substitutes for our
    rice krispies. Possibly a polymer that
    could be mass-produced inside a nuclear reactor.

  7. _________________ on Sat, 23rd Dec 2017 11:31 pm 

    Humans need to go extinct. All of this self destruction is caused by the schizo species hating freedom that is realized by subsistence farming/hunting/fishing. Every city no matter how well developed is a shithole of death.

  8. Cloggie on Sun, 24th Dec 2017 2:16 am 

    Remember the touching ritual of my father peeling apples for his family in the early sixties. No bananas, no cherries, no strawberries, no pine-apple, no nothing, just Dutch apples.

    Heck, Easter Europeans had nothing like that until 1989, when satirical magazines joked about Gabriella from The Zone and her first banana:

  9. Makati1 on Sun, 24th Dec 2017 2:52 am 

    Der…I would disagree. There are some very good flavored ones here. They are best when they are picked ripe, not green as in most US stores.

  10. Dredd on Sun, 24th Dec 2017 4:51 am 

    “The Bananapocalypse Is Nigh”

    Yep, U.S. is going banannas.

  11. twocats on Sun, 24th Dec 2017 6:48 am 

    And the Irish potato famine is largely a myth. People died, but it wasn’t a famine, more like a genocide. The English controlled all the best land and were exporting tons of meat, milk, vegetables to England for consumption there during that entire time. The Irish were mostly relegated to rocky lands with thin soil (or peat bogs, etc) that essentially could only support potato growing.

  12. Sissyfuss on Sun, 24th Dec 2017 9:07 am 

    Lacking diversity in certain crops reflects the problem of lacking diversity in living organic creatures. We are working towards replacing the diversity of the natural world with only things human, a recipe for disaster. It begins with fruits and pollinators and ends with ending us.

  13. Jh wyoming on Tue, 26th Dec 2017 3:49 am 

    Good post, sissyfuss. Notable trump just eliminated diversity as a word that the CDC can use, so it’s not even something the r’s want anyone think of anymore. The homogenizing of our entire existence.

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