We take bananas for granted, but we should know better. America’s favorite fruit was almost destroyed by disease once before, and scientists think it’s in peril again. The fruit industry disagrees.
The banana that the United States first fell in love with in the late 19th century, the Gros Michel, was nearly wiped out by a soilborne fungus called Panama disease. So in the 1960s the industry switched to the seemingly disease‑resistant Cavendish variety, which today accounts for 99 percent of all bananas sold in the United States. However, in the 1990s scientists identified a new strain of Panama disease, known as Tropical Race 4 (TR4). Last year, growers confirmed TR4’s presence in Latin America, the source of virtually all bananas sold in this country.
“The banana industry put all its bananas in one basket,” said Dan Koeppel, author of Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World (2007). That was a mistake because all Cavendishes are genetically identical, so “if one banana gets sick, they all get sick,” Koeppel notes.
The industry is inclined to keep moving Cavendish plantations to uninfected land, but according to Koeppel that carries serious environmental and sociological ramifications. Some scientists advocate for controlling the fungus chemically or replacing the Cavendish with yet another monoculture variety, but neither option has worked thus far: Panama disease has continued to spread.
Cavendish isn’t the only banana, not by a long shot. Small tropical farms produce more than a thousand varieties, and many sound enticing. The ice cream banana is reputed to be as soft and custardy as its namesake; the apple banana has a pronounced apple-like aroma.
If monoculture is the problem, it seems like replacing the Cavendish with three or four of these alternatives would be a delicious solution. Not so fast. Different banana varieties have different growing times, require different handling during harvesting and shipping, and require longer or shorter ripening times. They vary so much that Koeppel describes the very specific system for producing the world’s top banana as a “Cavendish-shaped pipe,” one that alternative varieties can’t withstand.
In his opinion, “What we need in order to save the commodity banana is engineers, not botanists,” because engineers might be able to modify the existing system to accommodate more varieties. But that’s not all it will take, since alternatives are likely to cost more. According to Koeppel, “It’s got to start with people who like good food, and people who sell good food.”