The banana peril

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Bananas are one of the most popular fruits on the planet. Globally, we eat close to 300 million of them each day and it is hard to believe they could disappear within a couple of years. Alas, banana extinction will not have been the first one. A better tasting, more resilient kind of the fruit, called Gross Michel, disappeared between 1960 and 1965 falling victim to the Panama disease (not the one troubling the tax evaders at the moment). A fungus called Fusarium attacked and killed the Gross Michel bananas in just half a dozen years. Now the same fungi with a catchy alias TR4 (short for Tropical Race 4) are decimating the crops worldwide. And it’s spreading fast…

TR 4 was first noticed in 1990 in Malaysia and sprawled across the South-East Asia to reach Mozambique in Africa in 2013. A year later Australia became infected and the virus penetrated 3.8% of the world’s plantations. Now all continents apart from Latin America are compromised and the virus claims around 7.5% of the crops. By 2016, the viral threat became so serious the annual banana congress was moved from Costa Rica to Miami, Florida in order to stop the disease from spreading to the last, virus-free continent.

The virus is spreading like wildfire because all the world’s bananas are genetically uniform and 45% of the world’s crops, called Cavendish, come from a single banana bred in England around 1834. The second reason is that TR4, unlike its great grandfather, is not a racist and affects not only the Cavendish but all the local banana varieties, making it more difficult to find a kind resilient to infection. This threatens a $9 billion a year industry employing 100 million people across 107 countries. TR4 has already damaged around $400 million worth of banana crops and although it is still far from the damage toll done by its predecessor, the virus is just getting started. It is worth remembering, TR1 left the industry with a loss of around $2.3 billion ($18.2 billion in today’s money). The descendant is even more deadly and it is believed over 85% of banana crops will be irreparably lost.

There are two ways of dealing with the problem. One is trying to contain the virus by eliminating the exposed plantations, quarantining the workers and sterilise all the equipment. Unfortunately, this has been unsuccessful so far, because Fusarium fungi dwell deep in the soil and the only way of killing them is incinerating the whole plantation and never growing bananas there. Plantation owners are not willing to make a sacrifice like that and it would take a joint international effort to force such a discipline. Other counter-measures are insofar of little impact, as sterilising equipment has no effect and quarantining the infected crops is only prolonging the inevitable. The other way is research of either a cure or a banana species resilient to the virus. Especially the latter solution is promising, although it would lead to a change in the bananas’ taste, texture and transport handling. Thus, bananas may become an expensive luxury or change their taste in a way difficult to predict in less than a decade, so go out to the nearest supermarket before it’s too late, just in case…


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