Bananas As We Know Them May Soon Disappear

Mark Hay — New and Improved

Bananas are in serious trouble. Ninety-nine percent of the world’s commercially exported bananas are Cavendishes, a variety that is less a unique breed and more an army of nearly genetically identical clones. Among the most uniform monocultures in the world, Cavendish bananas make up a huge part of the economy of nations like Ecuador and Guatemala. That uniformity also means the entire banana market is prone to the same diseases. And there are currently several pathogens ripping into Cavendish crops, with increasing force.

But, according to Gert Kema, an expert on banana breeding and diseases at the Netherlands’ Wageningen University and Research Center, there currently isn’t nearly enough research going into diversifying the banana market beyond the vulnerable Cavendish. Kema believes this is a result of a global agricultural industry prone to taking the path of least resistance. National Geographic has described banana crops’ susceptibility to disease as a “crisis,” and according to Nature the situation “could be disastrous” for the banana business. Yet in 2013, Ed Lloyd, a spokesman for fruit giant Chiquita, described bananas’ vulnerability as “not an immediate threat” and “not a ‘sky is falling’ sort of situation.”

That kind of reticence to addressing the threat of banana catastrophe worries Kema and his academic colleagues. They’ve launched a for-profit project to develop new, economically viable banana breeds, hoping to convince big industrial players to invest in bananas’ genetic diversity, something farmers have been advocating, to little avail, for decades. “In our view, banana production globally deserves genetic diversity,” said Kema. “This may sound like a pipe dream, or whatever, but we have to address the simple thing—that the underlying problem of all of these diseases is a lack of genetic diversity.”

Indeed, agricultural wonks have been expecting the Cavendish apocalypse for years. The bananas have long been susceptible to Black Sigatoka, a fungus that would likely wipe out 35 to 50 percent of the global crop if most fields were not doused in fungicide every growing season. And in the early 1990s, a new strain of the hard-to-quarantine fungal rot Panama disease—to which Cavendishes had long been resistant—exploded out of Southeast Asia, knocking out entire crops, tainting soils for years, and threatening to cripple the global banana market within years. An old strain of Panama disease wiped out its global predecessor, the sweeter and larger Gros Michel, by the ’60s.

“Banana growers realized more diversity was needed to prevent the problem from happening again. They were begging their bosses for it, but it never happened,” Dan Koeppel, author of the book Banana: The fate of the fruit that changed the world, told CNN in 2015.

Despite the size of the Cavendish export market, this strain makes up less than half of all the hundreds upon hundreds of banana varieties grown globally, most of which are consumed locally. Few of these other varieties are seedless, or good travelers, as any globally viable banana would have to be; none offer anything even close to a direct replacement for the Cavendish. Still, major distributors like Chiquita and Dole already export a mixture of non-Cavendish varieties, like starchier plantains, tarter and crunchier Manzanos, chunky Burros, and sweet brown or red breeds, to specialty markets around the world. And splicing the Cavendish with genes from Panama disease-resistant breeds is also an industry no-no, because of widespread and entrenched consumer skepticism about genetically modified foods.

Kema says industry insiders have long told him they don’t think the global market wants diversity, that consumers want what they know and trust, and that’s the Cavendish. Describing the challenge of breaking through customer expectations, Peter Fairhurst, a plantain exporter in Guatemala with ties to the banana industry, told Grist in 2015, “Everyone expects what looks like a Cavendish. Bananas come in blue, orange, and red and all different sizes — but they’re not commercially available or viable at this time because they’re blocked by people’s perceptions of what bananas should be.”

Kema says that this kind of thinking is pervasive in industrial agriculture—but can easily be overcome. “Now you have 10, 15 types of small tomatoes and people love it,” he says. “You see many examples that the market is ready for more [variety].”

Kema suspects that the industry may just be reticent to revamp its supply chain. Economically and logistically, the entire banana market is geared towards the Cavendish. The industry had years to switch to the Cavendish as Gros Michels slowly faded. But even that transition took massive investments and numerous ad campaigns to win over consumers. Shipping a newly diverse banana supply would likely be less efficient in many ways; right now, the margins just aren’t attractive to exporters. Regarding the existential threat to their beloved Cavendish and the need to explore alternatives, “The banana industry is in denial about this,” Koeppel told CNN.

The operational and financial costs to diversifying explain why growers have recently been especially hyped about Cavendish clones bred through plant tissue cultures. Some of these “somaclonals,” growers and breeders claim, have taken on subtle genetic variations that make them less susceptible to Panama disease than a normal Cavendish. But they still taste, look, and travel like Cavendishes, ostensibly offering an escape from the Cavendish apocalypse without ditching the Cavendish. But to Kema, an approach like that would only prop up monoculture, dragging focus and funding away from the development of new types of genetically diverse bananas.

There are a few banana breeding and research programs around the world, which investigate breeds for appealing traits or individual viability. Some attempt to develop new hybrid strains while others use genetic editing tools to tweak the Cavendish. This type of research is common across many crops, where there are always incentives to find promising new strains that could offer greater productivity, resilience, or marketability. “Theoretically,” acknowledges Kema, “we can play with the genes and really develop … varieties that are all Cavendish-like but have different resistance genes.” He believes this kind of genetic modification could provide enough diversity to push back against widespread diseases.

But for bananas, so far this kind of research has been limited (mostly for lack of serious financial support from the industry) and none of it has produced a notable fix to the looming Cavendish crisis. Kema worries that even if they did create a disease-resistant Cavendish or some other type of “superbanana,” the industry would repeat its old mistakes again, creating a new monoculture around it, and cycling through subsequent breeds every time a new disease pops up.

“It’s irresponsible to wait until somebody’s willing to fund a truly innovative approach,” Kema tells me. He says he and his academic colleagues recently decided, “you know what, we’ll do it ourselves.” Their new private company’s potential for profit, they hope, will garner more investment to produce resilient new strains than they could find in academic programs.

Breeding and selling new bananas is “definitely going to be difficult,” admits Kema. However he notes he’s already gotten a fair amount of support, including investment interest, although so far, none of that attention has come from major banana operations.

To stave off the Cavendish apocalypse, Kema and other researchers would have to discover disease-resistant genes in the wild, develop a wide array of economically viable new banana varieties, and prove the value of a diverse banana market. It took almost a century for the first Panama disease strain to knock out the Cavendish’s predecessor. But this new strain of Panama is strong, and can move quickly along the currents of a technologically advanced and globally connected world. During the last banana crisis the resistant Cavendish, developed by an amateur breeder in the 1830s, was already waiting in the wings to take over. Today we’re nowhere near as prepared, which makes the task facing Kema and company particularly daunting. Still, “we need to do something,” says Kema. “So we’d better start now.”