Bananas are the world’s most popular fruit, but the banana industry is currently dominated by one type of banana: the Cavendish (or supermarket banana) that we all know and love. The Cavendish banana rose to fame in 1965 when the previous banana superstar, the Gros Michel, officially became extinct and lost the throne.
The Cavendish is poised to face the same fate as the Gros Michel banana. This is because Cavendish bananas lack genetic diversity. In a way, bananas of this variety are clones of one another. This is a phenomenon known as monoculture, a practice present across many industries in our society.
Manufacturers often embrace monocultures because it helps the bananas all look familiar, birthing a sense of trust in consumers’ minds. Monoculture decisions also relate to the scale of operations, for it is easier to apply a mass pesticide to large Cavendish banana plantations.
Moreover, monocultures allow for the same maintenance processes to be used across different banana plantations. The major issue with monoculture is that when a segment of the bananas gets infected with a disease, they are all at risk for infection.
The Cavendish banana found its way from Mauritius into the hands of an English gardener named Joseph Paxton in the 1830s. Paxton's fascination with these bananas developed after he saw bananas on some Chinese wallpaper. He planted it, and in 1835, it bloomed, growing rich with bananas.
Cavendish bananas were then distributed to various parts of the world by missionaries, but it wasn’t until the Gros Michel banana was out of sight that the Cavendish began dominating the market. It now makes up 99% of all banana exports.
Over the years, society has consciously bred a few banana varieties for commercialization due to their particular shipping requirements (55-58 degrees Fahrenheit) and taste. Thus, there was a favored predecessor to the Cavendish banana: the Gros Michel banana.
How the Gros Michel Became the Cavendish
The Gros Michel banana dominated our society starting in the early 1900s. Banana plantations and increased transportation to export markets in South America in the late 1800s helped the world embrace the Gros Michel. Plus, the Gros Michel banana was also said to be tastier and last longer than the Cavendish banana. The Gros Michel enjoyed a short reign prior to its extinction.
Here’s how it went down. In the 1950s, a strain of fungus fusarium wilt (aka Tropical Race 1), a strain of the fungal Panama Disease) spread throughout the Gros Michel population. The disease quickly distributed itself across banana plantations around the world.
Panama Disease is a soil-borne disease, so it is extremely hard to eliminate from the soil. As a result, infected banana plantations were burned down and other crops had to be planted in the soil.
Alas, the Cavendish banana came in to save the day. At least for a little while. As breeders began mass production of the asexually bred Cavendish to save the banana industry, they were unconsciously repeating history. Then, Tropical Race 4 (TR4), a newer strain of Panama Disease, was born.
TR4 began its journey into the Cavendish kingdom in 1990. Its global spread was as follows: Malaysia, Indonesia, Taiwan, the Philippines, Thailand, China, Papua New Guinea, Australia, Pakistan, Jordan, Lebanon, and Mozambique. TR4 is still moving, although its next destination is TBD.
More on TR4
Tropical Race 4 (TR4) is another strain of the Panama Disease that made a grand, unwanted entrance into the banana society. Put simply, this disease kills the banana plant from the bottom up, negatively affecting its vascular system and preventing it from getting water.
Pair this with Black Sigatoka disease, a deadly fungal disease from the 1900s, and you get a banana recipe for disaster. Unfortunately for the Cavendish, this disease is thriving, as the current climate crisis is exacerbating its effects. The rising temperatures and wetter climate in areas home to banana plantations help to facilitate the spread of Black Sigatoka.
Can We as Consumers Help Save the Bananas?
As far as we know, the only obtained cure to TR4 is fungicide application. These fungicides, however, need to be applied 60 times a year to work, which creates tension with the environment and the workers who apply it.
The valuation of the banana industry currently stands at $12 billion. Buying organic and Fair Trade bananas shows manufacturers that we are willing to pay a little more for bananas. This can help favorably frame sustainable production practices. Thus, similar to conversations in the coffee space, conscious consumerism is a key to making a difference.
How Can the Industry Save the Cavendish?
There are over 1,000 banana types worldwide, but as shown, two big players made the manufacturing cut. This came for a myriad of reasons. Among them are cheaper, ideal shipping costs, a longer shelf-life, superb taste, and a familiar image.
In fact, many of these other banana types may have a 'secret ingredient' needed to save the Cavendish: resistance to TR4. As new banana mapping technology is developed, the genetic makeup of these other varieties can be examined for a TR4-resistant trait that can be added to the Cavendish.
Another option is to begin planting fewer banana crops per plantation or intercrop bananas with other plants. This can help increase the plantation’s disease resistance abilities, as there are fewer plants on a plot of land that can fall victim to disease. One planter in the Netherlands found a way to plant bananas with no soil to prevent the spread of TR4 among banana plants.
All in all, there's hope. But if we want to preserve the world’s most popular fruit, we need to act fast. As coined by BBC, this 'banana-pandemic' is real.