The Banana Is Dead? Long Live the Banana!
By Heath Shive
There are 1,000 varieties of bananas. The banana we eat in America is the Cavendish banana – the world’s most popular banana.
Dan Koeppel – author of the book Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World – had a dire prediction. “There may be five or ten or thirty years left for our banana,” Koeppel wrote.
He wrote that 10 years ago.
Global banana production reached a record peak of 117 million metric tons in 2015, up from 68 million tons in 2000. Bananas are the world’s fourth most plentiful crop (after wheat, rice and corn).
So how is our doomed Cavendish banana doing now?
To the science!
The Cavendish Banana
Americans eat more Cavendish bananas than apples and oranges combined!
The Cavendish is the world’s favorite banana too. According to a FAO Report, Cavendish bananas make up 47 percent of global banana production – about 50 million metric tons every year!
The Cavendish banana has a magical mix of virtues. The Cavendish is more resilient than most bananas, which made it great for shipping. The Cavendish plant is shorter – so harvesting is easier and the plant more likely to survive tropical storm winds. And it is a big producer: on average, one hectare can produce 40 to 50 metric tons of fruit.
And it tastes great!
But once – according to legend – there was an even better banana.
The Gros Michel (“Big Mike”)
Before 1960, the Gros Michel (“Big Mike”) banana was the world’s favorite. You can see the Gros Michel in old movies and TV shows. Compared to the Cavendish, the Gros Michel was bigger, easier to ship, had a creamier texture, and the flavor was unbelievable!
But it wasn’t immune to the Panama disease – a soil-tainting fungus – which destroyed whole plantations.
By 1965, the Gros Michel had vanished from the world’s supermarkets.
The Cavendish was more resilient…until recently.
Trouble in Paradise
For two decades, Cavendish plantations have been struck down by a new variety of Panama disease called Tropical Race 4 (or TR4). There’s no cure. The fungus stays in the soil for decades.
No wonder Koeppel made his dire prediction.
And there didn’t seem to be a new banana variety that could take the Cavendish’s place.
The New Franken-Banana?
Koeppel did suggest – however reluctantly – a quicker solution. The Cavendish could be genetically modified to be more resistant to the new TR4 fungus. Genetically modified (GM) foods are unpopular globally, even banned in some countries. But Koeppel felt that there was no choice.
And behold, there’s a new GM Cavendish!
Last year, a group of scientists from Queensland University of Technology successfully created a stronger “transgenic” Cavendish. They spliced a gene from a TR4-resistant, wild banana species unto the Cavendish genome.
One line of GM Cavendish was disease-free for the 3 years of trials. And 3 other lines of GM Cavendish had a mortality rate of only 20% after 3 years. The normal Cavendish plants had a 67-100% mortality rate in the same time.
As bad as it sounds, losing the Cavendish wouldn’t be the end of America’s banana craving. Nature (and business) abhors a vacuum.
There are other sweet banana varieties in the world. For example, there are the Lakatan, the Latundan, and the Red Banana.
But I have loved the Cavendish my entire life. And there is no love quite like your first love.
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Koeppel, Dan. Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World. Hudson Street Press, 2008.
Queensland University of Technology. "Saving cavendish: Panama disease-resistant bananas." ScienceDaily, 15 November 2017.
Hello! My name is Heath Shive, content manager at ScholarFox. I'll be the author of most of the blog posts. I'm a former geologist and currently a freelance writer. The world is complex and seemingly crazy. Good! Because when you love to learn, you'll never be bored.