The Demise of the Cavendish Banana

bananas

The Cavendish variety accounts for nearly 100% of the bananas imported around the world. (Photo credit: Muellek Josef/Shutterstock)

Whether sliced into a bowl of cereal, split in two and served with ice cream, or peeled and eaten, the banana is a common part of the American diet. Americans eat more bananas annually than oranges and apples combined. Bananas are an excellent source of vitamins, including B6 and C, magnesium, potassium, and fiber. While Americans typically view bananas as a snack food, in other parts of the world, they hold a much more important nutritional role. In some areas of Africa, where more than 200 species of the fruit are grown, bananas account for 80% of consumed calories. However, the banana that you know and love – a variety called the Cavendish – is in danger of being wiped out by a catastrophic disease currently spreading across the globe.

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Don’t Take That Banana for Granted

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“What’s a banana?” is not a question you are likely to hear anytime soon. But future generations of children may not grow up eating bananas like we did. If the world’s large-scale banana crops cannot be sustained, the slender fruit could someday look more like the exotic food that it truly is than a cheap American staple.

Given the way we eat bananas, you would think they were grown across the American plains. Americans eat more bananas than any other fruit. And we pay less for them than most other fruits. But most of our bananas come from Central America, and they are not at all easy to cultivate. Most of the thousands of banana varieties in existence are too bland, ripen too quickly, or yield too small a bunch to make it in the global market.

One variety, the Cavendish, makes up 99 percent of the banana export market. The Cavendish has what it takes—but just barely. Cavendish bananas must be picked while they are still green, they bruise easily during shipping, and they survive only two weeks once they’re off the tree.

Perhaps the biggest problem with our reliance on the Cavendish is that the banana plants they come from are all genetic clones. Without genetic diversity in the population, they are extremely vulnerable to disease. Diseases such as Black Sigatoka have led to the heavy use of expensive fungicides and pesticides to keep the crops alive. The cost of spraying is almost $1000 per acre and the plants must be sprayed almost every week.

And then there are the diseases that are not controllable by sprays. One such disease, Tropical Race Four, is a soil-born fungus that has already destroyed Cavendish populations in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Taiwan, causing tens of millions of dollars’ worth of damage. Most scientists agree that it is just a matter of time before it spreads to banana crops grown in Africa and Central America.

It would not be the first time a fungus has knocked out the global banana supply. In the 1960s, a similar fungus called Panama disease caused the Cavendish’s predecessor, the Gros Michel, to essentially go extinct. The Asian Cavendish was found to be resistant to Panama disease and became its replacement. Finding a potential replacement for the Cavendish has been a challenge.

Scientists led by Juan Fernando Aguilar of the Fundación Hondureña de Investigación Agrícola (FHIA) in Honduras are attempting to create new banana varieties through laborious cross-breeding techniques. In several labs elsewhere around the world, genetic engineers are working on creating disease-resistant bananas through genetic manipulation.

At this point, you may be wondering how bananas came to be such big business in the first place. In the late 19th century United Fruit Company (now Chiquita) built railroads through Central America in exchange for thousands of acres of rain forest land, which would be cleared for banana growing. United Fruit Company and others did an unprecedented job of marketing bananas to Americans. They reportedly even hired doctors to convince families that bananas were good for their children. Their tactics  worked—by the early 1900s, Americans were crazy about bananas. Banana peel litter actually contributed to the development of the first waste-removal networks in cities. The cost of bananas was kept down by poor wages and working conditions in the banana fields, and lack of health care and other rights for fieldworkers.

The question now is how to sustain the banana habit that has been created, or if we even should.

Questions:

1. You are leading a team that is working on breeding the “perfect banana.” List the criteria you would use to evaluate potential new breeds.

2. Assuming there is no such thing as the “perfect banana,” which of the above criteria would you be willing to compromise? Defend your decision.

3. What might be the consequences of compromising the criterion you chose?

4. Which qualities of a banana would you be willing to compromise as a consumer? Explain.

5. Is the banana a good candidate for genetic manipulation? Why or why not?

6. Research and explain the difference between organic and fair-trade bananas.

More to Explore

The Impact of Black Sigatoka
The Risks of Monoculture

The FHIA Banana Program

Banana Biology