Science’s search for a super banana
The Guardian, UK: Some suggest the banana is on the brink of extinction. Panama disease, also known as fusarium wilt, is on the march, wiping out plantations that provide a staple food for hundreds of millions of people and a livelihood for hundreds of thousands more.
Others say talk of Bananageddon is exaggerated. They point out bananas are as cheap and abundant as ever in our shops. The fungal strain that causes a new form of Panama disease has been spreading steadily for three decades, yet global production has continued to rise. Latin America – where some 80% of exported bananas are grown – has so far kept the pathogen at bay.
So how seriously should we take the doom-mongers? Can banana growers stay one step ahead of their fungal foe, or is its further spread inevitable? What is the role of modern, large-scale monoculture farming in vulnerability to the disease? And how close are scientists to finding a solution?
An earlier form of the disease, caused by a fungus called Fusarium oxysporum f sp cubense race 1, was reported in Australia, Costa Rica and Panama in the late 19th century. It spread across Latin America, devastating production of the Gros Michel, a sweet and creamy banana that dominated the export market. The disease caused mass unemployment, the abandonment of whole communities and economic losses estimated at more than $2.3bn.
By the 1960s, the Cavendish banana, which is resistant to race 1, had replaced the Gros Michel, and today accounts for 99% of global exports. It is the only type of banana that most in Britain and America have tasted.
This switch is, however, increasingly looking like only a temporary fix. A new fusarium strain called tropical race 4 (TR4), which does infect Cavendish plants, was identified in Taiwan in 1990. It has since spread across China and south-east Asia to Australia, Jordan, and Israel. It reached Mozambique in 2013, and earlier this year was reported in India, the world’s biggest producer of bananas.