We now consider bananas to be a breakfast staple yet not long ago they were considered an exotic treat to be eaten on a plate with a knife and fork. Yet the now ubiquitous fruit could become extinct thanks to a fungus that is wiping out banana plantations around the world.
The Fusarium wilt fungus has reached Asia and Africa and now Australia’s banana-growing regions. The banana industry is worried and its a problem entirely of their own making. In the quest for larger profits, they've relied on one single species of banana, the large, yellow and hardy Cavendish.
But the Cavendish wasn't always the world's top banana. It replaced the Gros Michel, which lost the spot after plantations were decimated by the very same Fusarium wilt fungus in the 1950s.
“The monoculture, the reliance on a single banana breed that makes all this possible -- that makes the low margins work -- also makes that fruit very susceptible to disruption,” said Dan Koeppel, author of Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World. “The biggest problem is disease.”
The monoculture problem isn't unique to bananas. Lack of plant diversity isn't unique to bananas. We once got our daily nutrition from 7,000 species of farmed crops. Today rice, wheat, corn and potatoes are responsible for more than 60 percent of global human energy intake, according to the UN’s Food & Agriculture Organization. Four crops now produce over half our food.
The new Fusarium wilt fungus isn't the same one that killed bananas in the 50s, instead designated as Panama disease Tropical Race 4.
The effect it has on banana plants is that it first yellows the plant’s leaves, then browns them as they dry out, killing the plant and its tasty fruit.
The fungus spreads easily on dirt clinging to shoes, truck tires and shipping containers, all of which are common features at a commercial banana plantation.
So far the fungus hasn't reached the Americas or western Africa, but its likely only a matter of time.
Dan Koeppel thinks its only five to ten years away. "And as of now there is no cure, and when it comes it will go fast and it will go very devastatingly, will probably wipe out the entire banana crop, unless something is done about it, unless some kind of cure is found or unless we diversify our banana crop before that" said Koeppel.
There may not be a way to save the Cavendish. Instead, researchers are looking to create new species that are more genetically resistant to the fungus and then replace the Cavendish, just as it replaced the Gros Michel.
Yet the same monoculture problem would persist, highlighting that new, blue ocean, approaches may be needed that involve more genetic diversity in crop varieties to fully protect the industry and its tasty fruit.