Bananas are threatened with extinction due to a lethal fungus, it has recently been revealed in a scientific paper published on November 19, in the PLOS Pathogens journal.
The Cavendish subgroup of bananas, which consists of hugely popular cultivars such as the “Grand Nain” and the “Dwarf Cavendish”, have represented approximately 47% of the global production of this fruit, between 1998 and 2000.
Ever since the 1960’s, they have been the most extensively commercialized bananas at an international level, replacing the “Gros Michel” assortment, which had been destroyed by the Panama disease.
As recounted by Dan Koeppel, who authored a book called “Banana: The Fate of the Fruit that Changed the World”, that prior banana subgroup had a much stronger flavor, and an unsurpassed creaminess.
However, it was believed that Cavendish bananas, which were smaller and less scrumptious than their predecessors, are at least much sturdier and resistant against this type of plant disease, triggered by a fungus known as Fusarium oxysporum.
The soil-borne microbe which can’t be vanquished by ordinary pesticides is especially deadly to bananas, wreaking havoc to their vascular system, to the point where eventually the plants succumb to dehydration.
It has recently been discovered that in fact Cavendish bananas are only unaffected by the fungus strain which damaged the Gros Michel crop from the Western Hemisphere. However, a new type of Panama disease has emerged, carried by tropical race 4 (TR4) Fusarium oxysporum, which leaves even Cavendish plants completely defenseless.
Initially, crop devastation was encountered in Indonesia, but lately, in spite of continuous measures to keep contamination under control, starting from 2013 it has also extended to other countries such as Taiwan, China, the Philippines, Australia, Pakistan, Jordan, Lebanon, Oman, with other cases also being reported in Africa.
Gert Kema, study co-author and an expert on bananas at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, has pointed out that the disease is rapidly advancing, and it might spell the end for Cavendish bananas, since a method to combat the newly formed fungus is yet to be discovered.
In the past, quarantine had been considered to be the most effective weapon against Panama disease, since pesticides are useless against this resilient and virulent microbe, which is capable of wrecking entire lands cultivated with bananas.
Since this beloved breed reproduces asexually, a plant and its offspring share the same genetic makeup. As a result, once disease is capable of killing one Cavendish banana plant, others which are virtually its clones soon face the same fate, and the fungus persists for several years.
The same vulnerability was also experienced by Gros Michel bananas, and it’s precisely why they were unable to defend themselves against the Panama disease, and now it’s obvious that history might soon repeat itself.
Cavendish bananas will face the greatest threat once the fungus reaches South America, the place where around 60% of the bananas produced for export are grown. Since the disease has become more and more prevalent lately, it appears it’s just a matter of time until those crops are also ruined.
This would be a devastating blow for hundreds of millions of people across the world, who depend on bananas as a source of sustenance.
According to George Mahuku, who works for the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, in Africa only, approximately 100 million people rely on bananas not just for nourishment, but also for the income they can generate by trading these in-demand fruit.
The 11 billion dollar industry centered around bananas could crumple, unless a viable replacement for the Cavendish variety is identified.
Although there are around 1,000 types of banana plants, a worthy successor is still extremely difficult to find, since a large number of these assortments are too dissimilar to enjoy the same popularity, while others require cooking in advance, or can barely be grown or transported.
Therefore, researchers are working on creating a genetically modified Cavendish banana, which could be undefeatable by the Panama disease, but might not be easily welcomed by consumers. Given these facts, it may be that one day soon bananas will indeed become extinct, in spite of their current ubiquity and popularity.
Image Source: Flickr