Bananas, which are considered one of the most popular fruits, could be on the verge of extinction for the second time in almost 50 years thanks to a deadly fungus known as Panama Disease.
In the first half of the 20th century, supermarket bananas in the United States were slimmer and much more flavorful than those sold today. But in the 1950s, Panama Disease wiped out this tasty strain of bananas called the Gros Michel variety, which was the only kind of banana consumed in the United States from the late 19th century until after World War II, in the mid 1900s.
The strain was replaced by a species of banana that was considered to taste a lot worse than Gros Michel, but it was resistant to the Panama Disease. This is the Cavendish banana that we all eat today.
But now, 60 years after Panama Disease took Gros Michel away from banana lovers everywhere, it is happening again. The disease that quietly made its way through East and Southeast Asia has jumped continents, affecting Africa, the Middle East and Australia in addition to Asia, according to Quartz.
This terrible news came to us in a study in PLOS Pathogens. The study traced the genetic makeup of the fungus in the afflicted areas, and the team of scientists discovered that the fungus is a new strain of Panama Disease called “Tropical Race 4,” said co-author and banana expert at Wageningen University and Research Center Gert Kema.
“We know that the origin of [Tropical Race 4] is in Indonesia and that it spread from there, most likely first into Taiwan and then into China and the rest of Southeast Asia,” Kema told Quartz. The deadly fungus has now spread to Lebanon, Jordan, Pakistan, Oman, Mozambique and Australia’s Queensland, Kema said.
The scientists’ work illustrates how little is known about the fungus. And it is clear that the strategies for containing the wrath of Panama disease aren’t working. Since the fungus is not dying, it is likely that it will land in Latin America, where three-fifths of the world’s exported bananas are grown.
So does that mean that you should stop eating bananas or banana splits or banana smoothies? Well, not exactly.
It takes a long time for Tropical Race 4 to spread. However, once it does, decline is simply inevitable. For example, Taiwan only exports 2 percent of what it did in the 1960s, after the fungus was discovered, Quartz reported.
In the meantime, scientists are trying to modify the banana plant so that it will resist the disease and other banana afflictions including fungal, bacterial and viral infections, The Examiner reported. This includes looking for new wild bananas in jungles and attempting to develop hybrid fruit that will certainly resist diseases.
It is important to note that the main reason Panama Disease is such a threat to bananas around the world is that dozens of different banana varieties usually exist in close proximity to one another and “have, literally made commercially produced bananas into effective clones of each other,” Kema said in a news release. “When you get rid of variety entirely, you risk exposing a crop to something it can neither cope with nor evolve to defend itself against.”
This has made it simpler for companies like Dole and Chiquita to cheaply produce bananas and control their consistency, but it has also made bananas more at risk.