Bananas aren’t going extinct — but, they are in trouble

In the first half of the 20th century, supermarket bananas in the United States bore little resemblance to the bananas sold today — they were more flavorful, slimmer, and tasted almost like banana-flavored candy, strikingly similar to what we recognize today as “artificial banana flavor.” But in the 1950s, a disease known as the Panama disease, named after its country of origin, wiped out this strain of bananas, known as Gros Michel bananas. They were replaced by a species of banana that was largely considered to taste worse than Gros Michel, but was resistant to the Panama disease: the blander, but easy-to-produce-and-pack Cavendish banana that we all eat today.

Now, 60 years after the assault that wiped out Gros Michel, history is repeating itself. Peter Fairhurst, a plantain exporter in Guatemala with ties to the banana industry (who, full disclosure, also happens to be my uncle), told me over the phone, “Now, in Southeast Asia, another fungal pathogen has raised its ugly head. Scientists are calling it TR4. It sounds like a terminator movie — and that’s exactly what it is.”

TR4, shorthand for Tropical Race 4, is a new strain of the Panama disease that’s going after the Cavendish banana, the species developed to fight the initial strain. The disease attacks the tree’s roots and vascular system. In other words, Peter said, “The fluids in the plant cease to flow and the plant gets black and dies — but the spores from the fungus stay in the soil.” For the past several years, the disease has moved quickly, killing crops through Asia, the Middle East, and Africa — and it’s nearly impossible to stop…

As we did 60-some years ago, we may be switching over to a new species of banana. One common misconception about bananas is that they will certainly go extinct because they’re a monoculture, or a single crop that has little to no genetic variation. But what needs to be specified is that bananas are not a monoculture; Cavendish bananas, or the strain of bananas we are used to, are a monoculture.

“What you have to distinguish,” Peter said, “is that what we have commercially represents a very strong monoculture because 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.” If we can get past the social construct of perfect, spotless yellow bananas, we’ll be able to tap into other species of bananas, which are widely diverse.

Randy Ploetz, a professor of plant pathology, agrees: “Part of the problem is that people are addicted to the Cavendish. It’s a crummy banana that’s easy to produce in large volumes, exporters know how to ship it, and people like the way it looks, so it’s hard to get away from…”

The takeaway? People will need to grow more open to alternative species of bananas. According to Peter, “Ultimately, the spread of TR4 will introduce different varietals to the American public, which will come down to a difficult marketing challenge in convincing Americans that a brown-spotted banana is a good banana.” Randy compared this challenge to what’s happened with apples in the past half-century: “Apples today are much more diverse than the red and yellows we only used to see, so if people develop a taste for something besides Cavendish, that would be a move in the right direction — but the initial key thing is getting something resistant.”

No doubt, there will be multiple solutions. The major players may unite or compete. Don’t always believe the myths about capitalist competition. If they were true, price-fixing would never exist.

The sidebar will be foodies who have a vested interest in the-sky-is-falling ethos. Surely there will be one or another latch in the science involved with ramping up production that will offend mythic spirits.

I wonder if bananas have gluten?