Say goodbye to the banana as you know it...

There is a global problem in the making right now that most people are not even aware of.  The beloved banana that you find on grocery store shelves around the world is under threat from a unstoppable fungus that has swept through large portion of the banana growing regions.  This fungus is so far untreatable and we haven't yet found any means of stopping its spread.

A little history of the banana

Bananas are not only a staple food crop for millions of people around world but they are also a very important economically to some of the poorest countries in the world.  The banana industry employees hundreds of thousands of people in over 150 countries around the globe.  These countries grow 105 millions tons of this fruit most of which is a single variety called a Cavendish banana.  Most of the trees that produce this Cavendish banana are actually clones of each produced through cuttings off an original source plant.

But it wasn't always this way in the world of bananas.  Even today there are over a 1000 different types of bananas but they are not grown at the same scale as the Cavendish.  The history of the banana can be traced back to the island of New Guinea and it is believed to have been domesticated sometime between 8000 and 5000 BC.  From its early domestication on New Guinea it spread across the Philippines and throughout the tropical region of the world.  Over the next few thousand years after its first spread it was helped along by trading, conquest and the religious expansion of Islam across Africa and up into Spain.  Its last great expansion occurred during the 15th and 16th century by European sailors going to all corners of the world and by establishing large plantations in Brazil where it then spread up into the Caribbean.[2]

The banana for most of its history was a locally grown and consumed crop.  But around the 18th century as the Industrial Revolution began to take shape it became a global commodity as our ability to grow and ship the banana successfully improved.

Which brings us up to the modern day in which the banana is a commercially grown, large scale crop with very little genetic diversity in the commercial stock.  What this gives us is a monoculture crop in the purest sense.  Not only are all the commercial banana trees the same species, they are essentially the same plant.  This is great for big industrial agriculture because it makes all the produce relatively uniform and you can standardize growing and harvest techniques.  

The flip side to this is that when something like the Panama Disease comes in and your variety is susceptible to it you will quickly lose all your crop.  The sad thing about this scenario of monoculture bananas and a deadly disease is that this isn't the first time this has happened in the world of banana production.  Back in the 1950's the Gros Michel banana was grown in huge monoculture plantations and was the Cavendish of its day.  A similar disease to what were are dealing with today sprang up and wiped out the plantations.  By the time it was all said and done the cost of the disease was 2.3 billion dollars in 1950 which would be around 2 trillion in today's dollars.[1]

What can we do about it?

To sum it up nice and neatly,

Not much...

We don't yet know enough on how the fungus attacks the Cavendish banana and our current fungicides are not fully effective at treating it.  There is also the issue of transmission of the disease.  With the vast networks of shipping that cross the globe it is easy for the disease to move from port to port and travel swiftly through the various banana growing regions.  

Barring some sort of incredible leap in fungicide treatments for the Cavendish banana there is really not much we can do.  The only real solution to the problem is to diversify the genetics of the Cavendish banana by cross breeding it with varieties that are not susceptible to the disease.

 According to the experts the Panama disease will reach and decimate the banana growing regions of Latin America some time in the next 20 years.  When that happens nearly all banana exports to the US will cease since we get nearly all of them from there.  So enjoy the banana while you can because we may well be losing our favorite ice cream topper very soon.