The world’s favourite fruit – Bananas – are under threat of extinction from a globetrotting fungus
In Britain alone we eat more than five billion a year. But now a virulent disease is threatening to wreak havoc on banana crops worldwide and maybe even kill them off.
A fungus known as “fusarium wilt” is laying waste to banana plantations in Australia and South-east Asia, and has now spread to Africa and the Middle East, with scientists warning that Latin America is next.
And, it seems, there is very little anyone can do to stop it. Fusarium wilt, also known as Panama disease, is resistant to fungicides and fumigants, is highly contagious and can lie dormant for years before striking again.
Once a farm is infected there is no option but to destroy all the plants. So serious is the threat that botanists have even coined a term for it: Bananageddon.
The global banana industry could be wiped out in just five to 10 years
A statement from researchers at the University of California reads: “The global banana industry could be wiped out in just five to 10 years.”
It is a view shared by plant pathologist Randy Ploetz of the University of Florida.
“These recent outbreaks confirmed that this thing does move,” he said, adding: “Affected plantations aren’t going to be able to grow anything because the replacement is not there.”
But the implications of Bananageddon go beyond simply losing our favourite breakfast fruit (it’s a berry, technically).
In Britain alone we eat more than five billion Bananas a year
Bananas fuel whole economies worldwide: they are the biggest export of Costa Rica, Ecuador, Panama and Belize and the second most valuable export for Colombia, Guatemala and Honduras.
The effects could be devastating – bananas generate £27billion a year worldwide. However it is not the first time that the banana industry has faced extinction – in an ironic twist, the current crisis has its roots in the last threat to their existence.
Almost every banana we eat today comes from the Cavendish strain: a variety first developed in hothouses belonging to the Duke of Devonshire in the 1950s.
Before then, the banana most commonly eaten around the world was the Gros Michel strain, a shorter, straighter, sweeter fruit.
In the early 20th century however, a fungus known as Tropical Race 1 (TR1) – a forerunner of Panama disease – wiped out Gros Michel plantations across Latin America.
Production in Guatemala was almost destroyed and in the Ulua Valley of Honduras 30,000 acres were infected and abandoned in a year.
Once the disease struck the farms were rendered useless – the pathogen would remain in the soil for decades.
A fungus known as ‘fusarium wilt’ is laying waste to banana plantations
The only banana that seemed to be resistant was the Cavendish and – most crucially – it could be planted in soil where the disease had been present. And so production of Cavendish bananas was embraced as the saviour of the industry: from that original plant in the Duke of Devonshire’s hothouses the Cavendish was cloned, with new plants grown from cuttings rather than seeds.
Millions of acres were planted and the industry was saved. So spectacular was the success of the Cavendish that it has become the only banana many of us have ever seen let alone tasted: about 43 million tons of Cavendish bananas are produced each year and the average British consumer gets through one every three days or so.
But it is precisely the speed and success of the Cavendish that is now endangering its existence.
The cloning of that original plant has made every single Cavendish banana genetically identical.
Each banana tree grown now is effectively a part of that original plant – and every one of the fruits on the plant a clone of every other Cavendish banana. And so when Panama disease returned in a new, genetically modified, form – laying waste to Cavendish banana plantations just as TR1 had obliterated Gros Michel farms a century ago – there was nothing anyone could do to stop it.
“The Cavendish banana plants all originated from one plant, and so as clones they all have the same genotype – and that is a recipe for disaster,” says Ioannis Stergiopoulos, of the University of California.
Bananas generate £27billion a year worldwide
In other words, a disease capable of killing one plant could kill them all. In the face of the threat, botanists around the world are collecting samples of other wild bananas to see if they can find a variety that is resistant to the latest form of Panama disease.
The plan is then to crossbreed the two strains to produce a new “super-banana” that retains the shape and flavour of the fruit we know today but with a more robust immune system.
With fusarium wilt raging across Australia, Asia, Africa and the Middle East, it is a race against time.
Should the disease spread to Latin America, where Ecuador, Costa Rica and Colombia are three of the largest exporters of bananas in the world, it could be that within a few years the bright yellow, curvy Cavendish bananas we know and love today will be at best a rare and expensive delicacy.
The banana plant is not a tree, it is the world’s largest herb
A handful of banana facts
1 – The word banana comes from the Arabic word “banan”, which means finger.
2 – The banana plant is not a tree, it is the world’s largest herb.
3 – A medium-sized banana contains only 95 calories and provides a quick energy boost with no fat, cholesterol or sodium.
4 – British banana supplier Fyffes received its first consignment of bananas 129 years ago in September 1888.
5 – The inside of a banana skin can be used to polish shoes.