Banana may be going extinct, new study says
Scientists say a fungus afflicting banana crops in Asia has the potential to wipe out the popular yellow fruit from the world.
A lethal fungus that has been threatening banana crops in Asia is now spreading to the rest of the world, and has some scientists warning of the popular fruit's extinction.
Researchers say that Tropical Race 4, a strain of the soil-borne fungus known as Panama disease is killing the Cavendish banana, the world's most popular variety, and has the potential to wipe out the $11-billion global banana industry, according to a study appearing in the online science journal PLOS Pathogens by researchers at Wageningen University in the Netherlands.
"We know that the origin of [Tropical Race 4] is in Indonesia and that it spread from there, most likely first into Taiwan and then into China and the rest of South-east Asia," Gert Kema, banana expert at Wageningen University and Research Centre, who co-authored the study, told Quartz. The fungus has now spread to Pakistan, Lebanon, Jordan, Oman, Mozambique, and Australia's northeast Queensland, Mr. Kema added.
Once it lands in Latin America, where more than three-fifths of the world's exported bananas are grown, it could lead to a bananapocalypse-size collapse of the yellow fruit, according to reports.
Researchers say that the disease affects the plants' vascular systems, preventing them from taking in water and causing the plants to rapidly wither and die. There is no known method for killing the fungus, so banana farmers simply try to contain it, a feat that has so far proved difficult.
Does this mean bananas as we known them are history?
History, in fact, offers grim precedent. In the 1800s, another strain of the Panama disease spread across another banana variety, the Gros Michel, the most popular banana at the time. In a matter of years, the Gros Michel was wiped out and declared commercially extinct.
The problem with the Cavendish banana, which eventually replaced the Gros Michel, is that it is a monoculture, or a clone that cannot evolve, which is believed to leave the fruit far more susceptible to disease.
Which is why it is under threat now and why banana expert Dan Koeppel suggested in a 2008 op-ed in The New York Times that consumers say goodbye to one of the world's most popular fruits.
"Perhaps it's time we recognize bananas for what they are: an exotic fruit that, some day soon, may slip beyond our reach," he wrote.
Not so fast say critics who argue that Koeppel's is a "chicken little" hypothesis that's been circulating for years to no effect.
In fact, an article in GM Watch, which advocates against genetic modification, says the banana extinction story is a recurrent tactic that's being used to promote genetic modification as the only alternative to banana extinction.
"'Only [genetic modification] can save the banana' is the underlying message of a story that first surfaced in 2001, made a comeback in 2003, and has done the rounds in the media ever since," writes GM Watch. In fact, in 2003, when reports were circulating about the banana's collapse, the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) released a statement declaring that "Bananas [are] not on [the] verge of extinction."
It points out that "the Cavendish banana is important in world trade, but accounts for only 10 per cent of bananas produced and consumed globally."
And scientists suggest there are ways to stanch the lethal Tropical Race 4 virus and help bananas more resilient.
Growers can first eliminate infected crops and adopt effective quarantine measures that stop the virus from spreading. Once the virus is contained, the world should begin looking for alternatives to the Cavendish banana, experts say.
Because it's a monoculture and the only banana grown for widescale use commercially, the Cavendish banana's vulnerability is "inevitable and not unexpected", says the FAO.
The solution, then is simple: greater genetic diversity. As Koeppel, the banana expert, wrote in a 2011 article for The Scientist, "Most banana researchers agree that the real answer - as has been the case with crops like potatoes, apples, and grapes - is to abandon the monoculture that makes the emergence of a disease so devastating. A more diverse banana harvest would allow farmers to isolate susceptible bananas, surrounding them with more resistant varieties."
© 2015 The Christian Science Monitor
> Bananas first appeared in written history in the 6th century BC. There are 50 recognised species of banana worldwide.
> Bananas were probably the first cultivated fruit, and the first banana farms were located in South-east Asia.
> More than 100 billion bananas are eaten every year in the world, making them the fourth most popular agricultural product. The highest average per capita consumption of bananas in the world is in Uganda, where residents eat an average of 500 pounds of bananas per person every year.
> Bananas are low in calories and have no fat, no sodium, and no cholesterol. They contain vitamin C, potassium, fibre, and vitamin B6.
Research shows that eating bananas may lower the risk of heart attacks and some cancers. About 75% of the weight of a banana is water.
> India produces more bananas than any other country accounting for about 28% of the worldwide crop. China is number two, with 10%. A man in India once ate 81 bananas in half an hour.
> Cavendish bananas were named after William Cavendish, 6th Duke of Devonshire, Britain. In 1834, Cavendish received a shipment of bananas courtesy of the chaplain of Alton Towers
> Cavendish bananas entered mass commercial production in 1903 but did not gain prominence until Panama fungal disease wiped out the Gros Michel variety in the 1950s.
> Cavendish bananas accounted for 47% of global banana production between 1998 and 2000. >Some countries, notably Japan, use the fiber in the banana plant to make fabric and even paper.
> The fastest marathon ever run by a competitor dressed as a fruit was 2 hours, 58 minutes, and 20 seconds - recorded at the Barcelona Marathon on March 6, 2011. The runner was Patrick Wightman from the United Kingdom.
> The Banana Club Museum, located in Mecca, California, houses the world's largest collection devoted to any one fruit. It contains more than 17,000 banana items.
> More songs have been written about bananas than about any other fruit. Harry Belafonte's version of the Banana Boat Song was released on his first album, Calypso, the first LP in the US to sell over a million copies.
- Compiled by KT