Bananas versus Fungi – Why a Favorite Fruit is in Danger

The bananas we eat today weren’t always the bananas that were sold in American supermarkets. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, until around 1960, a different kind of banana known as “Gros Michael” dominated the American fruit diet. Compared to today’s bananas, it was more flavorful, larger, less apt to bruise, and all around a better fruit. Yet the Gros Michael banana had one fatal flaw- it was vulnerable to the soil-bound fungus Fusarium, which in the late 50s decimated the fruit as the fungus spread around the world. In a last ditch effort to save the banana industry, farms around the world switched to the less quality Cavendish banana, which was inferior to Gros Michael in nearly every way yet immune to the strain of Fusarium that threatened to send the banana industry under. Today, Cavendish bananas are usually the only bananas found in stores, their Gros Michael cousins long having succumbed to the Fusarium fungus.

The typical Cavendish banana (Kim Scott/ Ricochet Creative Productions)

The typical Cavendish banana (Kim Scott/ Ricochet Creative Productions)

In the 1990s, however, a new strain of the Fusarium fungus was found in Asia. Known as Foc-TR4  (or Fusarium oxysporum f. Tropical Race 4), this variant affects the very fruit that saved the banana industry fifty years ago: the Cavendish. Like the Fusarium strain that killed of the Gros Michael before it, Foc-TR4 works by infecting the roots of a banana plant and moving up into the xylem of a plant, where it disrupts the flow of sap to the plant’s leaves, causing them to wilt and the plant’s fruit to rot. Over the past twenty or so years, Foc-TR4, also known as “Panama Disease”, has spread to Taiwan, Indonesia, Malaysia, and northern Australia, probably carried by Fusarium contaminated soil found on the boots and clothing of foreign workers. More recently, Panama Disease was found in Jordan in October of 2013. In April of this year, Foc-TR4 jumped continents into Africa, where it began to destroy banana plantations in Mozambique.

The fear is that foreign workers farming on banana plantations in Africa and Asia could inadvertently carry the Panama Disease to South and Central America, where 80%of the world’s Cavendish crop originates, creating another “bananapocolypse”(some are even calling it “bananageddon”) like what happened with the Gros Michael banana. In preparation for such a disaster, scientists are experimenting with ways to save the banana industry should it begin to fail again. For example, industry giant Chiquita is researching into a banana variant known as “GCTCV 219”, which is sweeter than the typical Cavendish and takes longer to harvest, yet it also resistant to Panama Disease. Other scientists are studying a wild Asian banana called Musa acuminata malaccensis, which could be interbred with the Cavendish to create a Panama disease resistant crop without drastically changing the banana’s taste, as happened in the transition between the Gros Michael and the Cavendish.

Still others are encouraging a change to what they see as an inherent flaw in the banana industry, that of its reliant on a single type of fruit. Bananas are the eighth most important food crop in the world and the fourth most important in developing nations, where some 400 million people rely on the fruit as a primary source of calories. Yet these people are at little risk from the Panama Disease. In India, for example, there are nearly 800 different verities of bananas, each having different flavors and properties from one another yet together offering much more variety than what is scene in American supermarkets- along with protecting the fruit from falling to the same crisis that killed off the Gros Michael. If one fruit should fail, 799 others would rise to take its place in the people’s diet.

While a more diverse array of bananas in American supermarkets may disrupt the American desire of uniformity in the availability of their foods, it could also allow for more flavor varieties and prevent another banapocolypse that could destroy the Cavendish or a replacement banana in the future.


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article by Devin Windelspecht, a upcoming freshman majoring in International Studies at NorthEastern University


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