Outbreak Threatens To Kill All Bananas

by Sarah Nove ’20

Bananas were the most popular fresh fruit in America in 2016, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. The United States is one of the world’s top banana importers, but a “beautiful bunch ‘o ripe banana” is getting harder to find in many grocery stores. It’s not due to tariffs, seasons, or higher rates of consumption; rather, the cause is a bit more disturbing. Bananas as we know them are heading towards extinction.

An outbreak of Panama disease, a fungus formally known as Tropical Race 4 (TR4), has been killing bananas in Asia for decades, but has expanded to other continents in the last ten years. Now infecting bananas in the Middle East, Australia, and Africa, the expansion of this crop killer threatens to decimate the banana trade, especially if it reaches the next biggest banana producer in the world: Latin America.

The disease is vicious and fatal for Cavendish bananas, the most common variety of banana. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) reports that Cavendish bananas account for 47 percent of global banana production. According to BBC, that is the greatest cause of this epidemic: monoculture, the practice of cultivating only one variety of a crop. Monoculture means that more of the desired variety will be on the market, but the crop is more vulnerable to disease. Cavendish bananas are especially susceptible to diseases, as they reproduce asexually—so natural selection does not apply. Asexual reproduction creates identical copies of the parent, so when a banana reproduces, its child is just as vulnerable to diseases as previous generations. That is just one reason that Panama disease cannot simply skip a generation.

Furthermore, the disease lingers in soil for decades, unaffected by fungicides. In the late 1800s, an earlier strain of Panama disease nearly wiped out the banana industry in Latin America. At that time, the Gros Michel variety of banana filled the role that Cavendish bananas currently occupy. When the last epidemic hit America, Gros Michel plantations were ravaged, and, later, abandoned. The disease persisted in the soil for years, leaving Gros Michel bananas virtually extinct. Cavendish bananas, which are immune to the mutation of Panama disease that killed its predecessor, were selected to replace the Gros Michel variety due to their similar appearance. A century later, the banana industry faces an almost identical problem once again.

Although Panama disease cannot directly harm humans, it can certainly harm other aspects of human life. Bananas impact the global economy, cuisine, and diet. If the fungus makes it to Latin America, which the New York Times predicted in 2008 that it would in “5 to 10 years, maybe 20,” bananas as we know them—the Cavendish variety—will be scarce. With few solutions on the table and a cure not yet found, it seems as though the era of banana splits and slippery prop comedy may be coming to an end.