The rise and fall of the King
Bananas are the number one most consumed fruit in the world and have been for a long time. The first evidence of banana cultivation can be found in South East Asia – specifically in the Kuk Swamp of Papua New Guinea where evidence of banana cultivation goes back to 5,000 BCE. From there, the banana spread from Asia through to Africa and the Middle East. The fruit was spread to Europe alongside the great Islamic conquerors of the Middle Ages and then onto the Americas by European explorers, leading to the enormous banana plantations found across Latin America today.
The great majority of bananas eaten around the world are from a monoculture called the Cavendish Banana. The Cavendish has become so successful and ubiquitous that it makes up almost half of all bananas grown worldwide and as much as 99% of bananas sold in developing countries.
There are downsides to the dominance of the Cavendish, however. The banana itself is sterile meaning that the fruit has to be cloned from samples rather than reproducing naturally. This ensures that the plantations can be organised well for agricultural purposes but it makes the process of growing them incredibly labour intensive. The monoculture also leaves the worldwide banana industry extremely open to disease, viruses and deadly banana pathogens.
This worries industry experts as the worldwide banana crop has been wiped out in these circumstances once before. The species of banana known as the Gros Michel previously ruled the world until a pandemic known as ‘Panama Disease’ tore through banana plantations across the world in the 1950s and 1960s, necessitating a mass switch to the Cavendish. The king is dead; long live the king.
Unfortunately, the Cavendish is now under attack from two different deadly diseases. Black Sigatoka attacks the plant’s leaves, causing cell death and inhibiting photosynthesis. Even with extensive pruning of infected leaves and liberal application of fungicides, Black Sigatoka can cause up to a 50% decline in plantation yields. The problem is only getting worse at the moment as the use of fungicide is a short term solution. Banana crops are saved today, but at the expense of selecting fungal strains which are resistant and allowing them to spread and exacerbate the issue.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, an evolved variant of ‘Panama Disease’ which the Cavendish has no resistance to is currently gathering pace in South East Asia and Africa and is threatening the global banana industry. If it spreads to the Americas in force then we may be looking at a future where bananas are either very expensive or mostly non-existent. There is a sweet, almost Shakespearean irony in the disease which allowed the rise of the Cavendish also being potentially responsible for its downfall.