The Last Banana on Earth

       image courtesy of Geostationary Banana Over Texas
Bananas are on a crash course to extinction.
10 years, give or take. That’s how long scientists are giving the banana.
Then what will we slice on our morning cereal?

Bananas are uniquely ubiquitous as both food and pop culture icon.

The most popular fruit in North America, we eat more bananas than apples and oranges combined. They are available any time of year. They are grown thousands of miles away, but even with the added cost of shipping they still cost less per pound than just about anything else in the produce aisle.
Expressions like top banana and going bananas are part of our common lexicon. A slip on a banana peel is a staple of physical comedy. And what would a split be without them?

A Little Banana Biology

The bananas we eat today come from sterile, seedless plants. New plants are cloned from the cuttings of existing ones. Each banana is genetically identical to the next; essentially we keep eating the same banana over and over again.

Now think back to 10th grade science— diversity, mutation, evolution, survival of the species… bananas have none of that going on. Without genetic diversity, there can be no adaptation. What makes one banana sick will make every banana sick. A disease or environmental threat will imperil the entire species.

Don’t think it can’t happen. It already has.

For the first half of the 20th century, we were slicing a different variety of banana into our cornflakes. Like the current Cavendish variety, the Gros Michel was a mass-produced, undiversified cultivar that dominated the market. When the Gros Michel proved to be especially vulnerable to a leaf fungus known as Panama disease, commercial growers made a desperate attempt to stay a step ahead of the blight by replanting bananas in fungus-free areas. It proved impossible to outflank, and the species was virtually wiped out. Fortunately the Cavendish variety proved resistant to the fungus, and by 1960, the banana industry had completely reconfigured around the new variety.
.Now it’s back.

In 1992, a new, vigorous, pesticide-tolerant strain of Panama disease appeared— and this time the Cavendish banana is affected. The disease has already devastated plantations in Indonesia, Malaysia, Australia, and Taiwan. Scientists agree that it won’t be long before it reaches Africa and Latin America. With no new, disease-resistant variety waiting in the wings, we are facing a full-fledged, global banana apocalypse.
The industry is scrambling for a substitute, experimenting with various hybrids and genetic modifications of existing varieties. If one is found, it will be yet another fragile monoculture, and like the Gros Michel and Cavendish, just a matter of time before it succumbs to pests, disease, or climate change. Yes, we will have no bananas…but we will have learned a lesson about the unsustainability inherent in large-scale monoculture farming and the long-distance food chain.

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