6 Reasons Bananas Are On The Brink Of Extinction
These, friends, are Cavendish bananas. You just know them as "bananas":
Also as "fruit dongs" and "nature's dildos."
They're America's most popular fruit. We put them in our lunches, we split them in our ice cream, and we put condoms on them in awkward junior high health classes. And, thanks to a fungus that's slowly been spreading around the world's banana crops, they're headed for extinction. There is no known way to stop this, and they've been trying for decades.
How the hell can something like this happen? We spoke with Dr. Randy Ploetz, a University of Florida professor of plant pathology, who discovered the Cavendish-killing fungus, known as tropical race 4, in 1989. He told us why the banana as we know it might vanish before you know it ...
It's Happened Before
A few of you are already thinking, "Bullshit, bananas are fine! This is just the latest government scam, like global warming or taxes!" And many more of you are quite reasonably skeptical, because on the surface it sounds ridiculous. Bananas are a staple food -- how could they just get sick and leave us when we thought we'd have them forever, like our childhood puppy all over again?
Well, the Irish Potato Famine, which killed about a million people, was caused by a blight that ran unchecked. And we all know how the people of Interstellar had their crops devastated by disease. And when it comes to bananas, this exact scenario has happened before. Take a look at this freaky thing:
"Short and thick does the trick!"
That's a Gros Michel banana, and that's probably the only banana your grandparents ate growing up. From around 1900 to the mid-'50s, Gros Michel (aka Big Mike, because we used to name fruit like frat bros) was the banana in America. Here's actress Carmen Miranda wearing them:
The bananas are nice, but the strawberries are just plain garish.
Here they are being sold on the streets:
Ah, the days before the Department of Health truly were a golden age for fruit vendors.
And here's an old-timey Gros Michel ad that doesn't particularly prove our point, but is hilarious:
You can also use bananas to inadvertently explain why blowjobs are God's work.
But good luck finding one today. While they're not completely extinct, they're a niche product, the cruelty-free organic soy milk to Cavendish's 1 percent. And they were destroyed by an earlier form of today's pathogen, race 1. Race 1 needed 50 years to ruin the world's plantations, but by the time it was done it had caused the modern equivalent of $2 billion in damages. Now entire generations have never eaten a Gros Michel, and the fruit hat industry never recovered. But whatever, now we just have a new kind of banana, right?
"Gros Michel is a great banana," says Dr. Ploetz. "It tastes better than Cavendish, it's got a lot of attributes that make it a better export, but it's really, really susceptible to race 1. Producers knew Cavendish was very resistant to race 1. It was slotted right into the old Gros Michel production systems and they didn't miss a beat. But the problem now is that we don't have something resistant to TR4 that can replace Cavendish. They became complacent. 'It was easy last time; it will be easy this time.' It won't be."
But rest assured, we have our top nerds on it.
The same banana that's slowly dying now was perfect for resisting the last epidemic. This has happened elsewhere, too -- the Irish Lumper potato that caused Ireland problems basically vanished for 170 years, if only because that's a dumb name for a potato -- but now we have no emergency replacement. The Gros Michel isn't even the only variety to meet a Bananapocalypse. "When I first came down to South Florida, the apple banana was a really important banana down here for producers. And you can't find it now; it's been wiped out."
Which is of course the English translation of the original Spanish name, platano de chode.
And, while we're not saying it's going to happen to other crops, there's nothing in particular stopping Mother Nature from sending a reminder that she still runs this household. As Dr. Ploetz says, "A disease that could really take the industrial world by surprise affects natural rubber, which is really, really important -- airplane tires, for instance, are 100 percent natural rubber. Artificial rubbers are not as good quality. There's a disease in tropical America that's not found where most of the world's rubber is produced, but if that one disease got over to Southeast Asia it could be disastrous. Virtually every crop grown in the tropical world has got a handful of diseases or insect pests that can cause great problems."
It's Already Started
So what, exactly, is happening? Well, the Cavendish represents 95 percent of the worldwide banana trade, and it's experiencing the fruit equivalent of a horror movie where a disease runs rampant around the world. Except Brad Pitt isn't about to dramatically save a bunch of lunch bag snacks.
TR4 has already hit Asia, the Middle East, and Africa hard. We haven't noticed the effects in America, because American bananas come from Central and South America for maximum daiquiri freshness. So to us it's just a slowly developing story to keep an eye on. But for the hundreds of thousands of people around the world who depend on bananas for their income, or the 410 million who need bananas to get their daily calories, well, you try eating this:
Not literally, that would be disgusting.
It's reached the point where the United Nations is urging banana-growing countries to step up their fungus fighting game, lest they find themselves with a full-scale crisis, but in a rare snub of the otherwise universally revered global authority, no one appears to be paying a ton of attention.
But hey, we're already great at ignoring broke and starving foreigners. We're not going to find ourselves in a Mad Max-style wasteland where bananas replace gas and water as resources worth killing over, but it's possible you'll have to say goodbye to Cavendish in a decade or three. About 70 percent of the $9 billion banana industry's produce comes from Latin America, so if TR4 spreads there, like Dr. Ploetz and others fear it inevitably will, well ... at the very least, we'll raise a generation of children who have no idea why that weird yellow thing makes you slip in Mario Kart.
The Disease Is Effective Because It's Slow And Boring
So why have you, at best, heard only passing mention of this issue? Is Big Watermelon suppressing information? Or is it just a hard story to get people interested in? It's mostly the latter. Mostly. We like our news stories about pandemics to be fast and furious. Ebola, mad cow ... those unfold over weeks, not decades. People just can't get excited about a disease that moves like a nursing home resident on lithium. "It's a soil-borne fungus," says Dr. Ploetz, "And it takes a while for it to spread from plant to plant. So by the time you recognize that you have a problem, large portions of the plantation can be affected. It's very, very hard to manage. It makes headlines after the horse is out of the barn, but by then it's too late to do anything."
The ideal solution is a quarantine, but that's not as simple as it sounds. Dirt-borne fungus is the polar opposite of zombie bites on the scale of interesting ways to spread a disease, but it also can't be stopped by closing the door or power walking. "The problem is that it's really easily moved. I've got a colleague in Holland who went to China, got mud on his shoes and purposely came back to Holland with it and was able to isolate the pathogen. So something as simple as muddy boots can move this thing around. There's just not enough manpower and willpower to check every traveler. Our concern is that we know it can move from Southeast Asia all the way across the Indian Ocean. If it can move that far, it's probable that it will eventually jump across the Atlantic to tropical America. When, we don't know, but history has shown that it's possible. Coming up with some kind of quarantine measure would be great, but I doubt it's going to happen."
"I suggest we confiscate all shoes from incoming travelers. It will stop the disease
and help replenish our Strategic Dope-Ass Kicks Reserve."
Even when quarantines are established, they're not 100 percent effective. It's not like you can shoot the dirt if it doesn't comply with your warnings to back off. "There are quarantine laws in effect in various banana-producing countries in the Americas, but it's such an insidious thing that it's just a matter of time until this thing shows up somewhere. Australia's had problems with TR for 20-odd years now. They knew they needed to keep it out. But it showed up, and their quarantine measures are pretty good. It's going to be so, so difficult to keep it out once it's found in nearby areas."
Here's what an Australian plantation looked like in the aftermath of TR4 rolling through:
And the longer it's in Australia, the more likely that the fungus will mutate and become venomous.
One mistake and everything was slowly but surely destroyed.
It's Immune To The Obvious Solutions
There seems to be a really easy fix here. It's a fungus; why not just create a fungicide? Unfortunately, in this case that's like trying to use bug spray on your skin after the insects have burrowed into your chest cavity. "There are no effective fungicides. TR4 does its damage inside the plant. It infects the roots, and once it gets inside, it infects the vascular system. And once it gets inside the water-conducting vessels, it's a pretty protected location; it's hard to get any kind of fungicide inside the plant. And there just aren't any good products for those kinds of diseases, even if you could get it inside the plant."
No, that won't work. We thought of it too.
The other seemingly obvious solution is breeding. We've carefully selected bananas for countless years to get the perfect shape, size, color, and taste -- can't we select for fungus resistance too? But first, on the scale of breeding difficulty, bananas are closer to uninterested pandas past their sexual prime than they are to drunk college freshmen. And second, even slight changes to Cavendish would make it no longer like the banana we know and love, and as anyone who's ever rejected an orange for being "too orange" knows, consumers are really picky about how their fruit looks and tastes.
"It's difficult to breed them. It just so happens that the most productive bananas are propagated vegetatively instead of by seed. So the technical issue is that you can't hybridize those easily. It's possible, but when you do it all kinds of genetic things happen that make it very difficult to produce. For example, if you wanted to improve Cavendish, the progeny you get are not like Cavendish; there's a lot of variation. Cavendish is a known thing. We know that people will buy these bananas because they like the way they look and taste. So ideally what you'd want to do is just change the disease resistance of Cavendish and just put in a specific gene for that. But you can't do that with conventional breeding."
No matter what position they do it in.
So they'd better buckle down and really start looking for solutions, right? Yeah, various experts have actually been trying for almost a century. "The first breeding program was established in Trinidad and Tobago in 1922. Their objective then was to produce something that could replace Gros Michel. They failed miserably, and now people are trying to do it with Cavendish, and they've failed as well. It's not that they haven't been smart. It's just a really difficult target."
No One Wants To Address The Problem
Another big obstacle to the scientific solution is that, even among scientists who make a living studying how fungus can make plants sick, bananas are not a sexy subject. Most relevant scientists work on corn and wheat, the Katy Perry and Beyonce of the plant pathogen community. "Grains are more important -- more people eat wheat and corn. There's about 10 people worldwide who are really working on this problem. Some are like myself: I don't spend all my time on this; I mainly work on a disease of avocado. Probably only two or three spend most of their time on this."
Partly because if some poor people go without bananas, it's no biggie, but if some Chipotle customers
don't get their guac, they'll be executing hostages on live TV.
And while we can understand why the average person doesn't particularly care about this issue, governments aren't exactly spending big money to keep that sweet, sweet banana train rolling in either. "There's a general trend around the world where international agricultural research is falling on hard times. It's difficult to fund the research that needs to be done."
On one hand, that's understandable -- during an election, banana supply ranks slightly below healthcare and terrorism on the list of voter priorities. "Historically, the funding has come from the developed world, but in the United States there are so many other demands for tax dollars. The political will to support research is frankly being diminished. There's only a handful of countries that can say, 'Hey, we'll support international agricultural research,' and there are a lot of different competing areas for the money that is available."
Note: Actual data may vary.
On the other hand, you can ignore a problem only for so long before it gets serious, like that rash you swear you don't need to see a doctor about even though it keeps spreading. "We don't grow them here in the U.S. So people don't appreciate and understand the importance of crops in the tropical world. They've got other things in mind. We don't grow it, so we're not that concerned about it."
In the developed world that can provide the funding, bananas are just a snack and comedy prop. About 90 percent of bananas are eaten in the developing world, where they're often a dietary staple, but they don't exactly have a ton of money to spare for research. We'll let Gwen Stefani explain this catch-22:
It doesn't help that banana companies are arguing that the problem is overblown and, well, maybe it is. But there's an expression for this kind of scenario, something along the lines of ... "Better safe than lose all the bananas?" It's something like that. Dr. Ploetz puts it like this: "What they're going to say later on when this thing shows up in the Western hemisphere is, 'Oh jeez, why didn't you guys do something about this?' That kind of 'stick your head in the sand' attitude is what's got us into trouble to date. In China and the Philippines, TR4 has affected tens of thousands of hectares. Initially, people said it wasn't a big deal and that they could manage it. History has shown that they can't. And if they had taken it more seriously when it showed up, perhaps they wouldn't have as great of a problem."
You Can Help By Being Open To Other Bananas
So what can you, as a reader who presumably doesn't have significant influence on agricultural research policy, do to help stop the Bananapocalypse? Well, aside from mailing your congressperson bananas with pleas for funding written on the peels, you can stop being weirded out by East African Highland bananas:
Pisang Jari Buaya bananas:
You damn banana bigots.
Or any of the many other kinds of bananas out there. Seriously, that would help a lot: The fact that we're such picky eaters is what's created an over-reliance on Cavendish. "Cavendish is kind of a poor substitute if you've had these other bananas. The model I like to use is apples -- we used to have only Red Delicious and Yellow Delicious apples, and now there's lots of different apples out there. Consumer acceptance of different types of bananas needs to be encouraged. Consumers are really fickle," Dr. Ploetz says.
Unfortunately, it's not as simple as all of us collectively agreeing to start eating some of nature's uglier but tastier children. A lot of the tastiest alternatives are equally susceptible to TR4. "The best-tasting bananas I've ever had are all really disease susceptible. There's another banana that you've probably seen in grocery stores called an apple banana; they're producing them still in Colombia. They're relatively expensive, but they taste a lot better. But they're also really susceptible to disease. It's becoming difficult to produce them."
"OK, everyone, shut it down. We're going back to cocaine!"
Other hip alternatives don't last long under tough conditions and are difficult to bring into the mainstream. "Some other bananas resist TR4, but they don't produce as many bananas. Economically, it's going to be tough having a banana farmer make money off of them. The thing about Cavendish is that they're so productive, exporting them a great distance is still pretty inexpensive. These other types that taste better and resist disease better would be much more expensive to produce."
Another alternative might be GMO bananas, but that has its own problems. And we're not counting the fake problems with GMOs your hippie aunt keeps sharing on Facebook. "A lot more work needs to be done [on GMOs]. The results I'm aware of so far are encouraging. Whether a GMO banana that resists this disease will be accepted, I don't know, but I'd like to think we'd be open-minded about it."
Regardless of your stance on GMOs, opposition might let up if science delivers us a delicious, disease-resistant banana. "A lot of people are against GMOs, but for this particular situation GMOs might be the best way to handle this. Scientifically there's been no information to suggest that GMOs are bad for your health. The information that's been bandied about comes from non-scientists who don't know what they're talking about. But I'll just say that the opportunity for managing this disease is probably greatest with a GMO banana, because you could slot in one gene for resisting this disease and retain all the other things that Cavendish has going for it. If the consumer expects Cavendish, GMO would be the best way to produce a Cavendish-like fruit that's resistant to disease," Dr. Ploetz says.
Otherwise, one day you'll probably find bananas are much pricier than they were before, and after that, replaced by some weird-tasting thing that will try to fill the banana-shaped hole in our hearts. Brazilian passion fruit is certainly making a strong case for itself:
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