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article imageOp-Ed: Will the world have to kiss its favorite banana goodbye?

By Megan Hamilton     Jun 6, 2015 in Food
Guayaquil - For the last six decades, banana crops in Latin America have flourished after nearly being wiped out by a nasty disease.
Now there are worries that a more virulent strain of the same disease may wipe out the world's favorite banana — the Cavendish.
The reason for all this worry can be blamed on Fusarium wilt, a soil-borne fungus that appeared in Australia's main banana-growing state this year, after wending its way from Asia and Africa. While it's been around since the 1990's and has fortunately not affected Ecuador, the world's top banana exporter, Fresh Del Monte Produce Inc., has sounded the alarm, calling it a potential "big nightmare," reports. The United Nations notes that the disease threatens supply, and Latin American growers are doing what they can to lessen the risk.
In the 1950s, the banana industry hung on by the skin of its teeth after the top-selling Gros Michel banana met its demise due to another fungal disease and that's when the industry switched to the hardier Cavendish variety.
Now, however, the industry has no ready substitute for the Cavendish, and Americans now eat bananas almost as much as apples and oranges combined. We are also the biggest buyers in an export market that's valued at more than $7 billion.
Living in Central America like I do, I must admit I find all of this rather surprising. Soon, I will be planting hijos (sons) of bananos y plátanos (bananas and plantains), and they are amazingly easy to plant--just grab a machéte, slice off a section of stem with a nice leaf, and you have an hijo, basically the "son" of the plant. Then shove the hijo into the ground and you're done. Sit in the house and drink coffee, and wait for the rains to take care of business.
Not only that, but depending upon where you live in Costa Rica, you can find all kinds of bananas--not just the frankly, rather boring Cavendish. There's red bananas, and great, big fat ones you could club someone with (not recommended), and tiny ones that are lovely to eat, but surprisingly still have seeds. Plus, plátanos, those big, black bananas that are far too expensive in American stores, are plentiful here, and very cheap. They taste like a banana that's been crossed with a peach and are really lovely to eat.
So, why did the banana industry put all of its eggs, er, bananas, in one basket?
To have an idea about what's going on, it's helpful to know a bit of history about growing bananas in Latin America, especially when it comes to the United Fruit Company and Standard Fruit. Once the Gros Michel died out, Cavendish, courtesy of Standard Fruit, came in and saved the day. It was resistant to the early stages of Fusarium wilt (Fusarium oxysporum f. cubense), or Panama disease and it became the darling of the banana industry, Quartz reports. Now, Cavendish is grown the same way as what I'm planning to do--poking hijos into the ground, and since it's done like this, it means the plants are clones, and therefore sterile. If you've sussed out a possible problem with this scenario, you're on the right track. However, Big Banana failed to see any problem with this and banana plantations sprouted everywhere, and poor people throughout Latin America had a nutritious, and plentiful, cash crop.
Some 60 percent of the 40 million tonnes of Cavendish bananas grown each year are eaten locally--not exported.
However, it's difficult to keep a good plant disease down.
United Fruit and Standard Fruit built an empire and then metamorphosed into Chiquita and Dole. Other industry giants jumped on the banana bandwagon as well. But Panama disease was just cooling its jets, waiting for the next opportunity. Which was provided when the industry launched enormous plantations of Cavendish in Malaysia, one of the places where bananas evolved, Quartz notes.
Having gained notoriety in Latin America, the fungus is actually a natural predator of Malaysian wild bananas. This is why moving banana production to Asia was a bad idea. When you find the most highly adapted wild bananas, you also find the most highly adapted diseases. Which also means that wild bananas and Panama disease have been involved in an evolutionary arms race for eons in the jungles of Malaysia.
Dealing with this fungus meant that wild bananas passed on only the best genes for survival. In turn the bananas kept the fungus on its toes and ready for lethal combat. Quartz notes that when the fungus was introduced to Latin America in the latter part of the 19th century, the Gros Michel never stood a chance. Fusarium wilt was born to wipe out the most evolved banana species there are, so wiping out a sterile mutant with no natural resistance was no problem at all
When the Gros Michel went bottoms up, the economic costs were staggering, Panama reports. The costs were as high as $2.3 billion U.S. dollars.
Because most commercial banana plants are clones, they are extremely prone to disease epidemics. If one plant falls ill, other nearby plants can easily wind up contaminated. The catastrophe wiped out Gros Michel plantations and devastated the livelihoods of millions of banana workers and producers.
The new strain of this disease, discovered in 1992, was discovered in Southeast Asia. So far, it has destroyed tens of thousands of hectares of Cavendish plantations in China, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines. Thus far, the damage caused by this second outbreak has gone well past the U.S. $400 million mark.
The Cavendish, however, is made of tougher stuff. This only helped it against Race 1, the strain of Panama disease that was introduced to Latin America over a century ago. In the years since, this pathogen that stayed in Malaysia kept evolving and out-maneuvering wild bananas until one current strain of this fungus became Tropical Race 4, which is like Panama disease on steroids, Quartz reports.
While Big Banana's global domination didn't create Tropical Race 4, it did help "select" it, Ploetz said. Because exporters built the business around a monoculture, Cavendish bananas were now sitting ducks for consistently adapting strains of Panama disease. Moving banana production all over the globe, well beyond the species' natural habitats was also a bad idea, because companies had now ensured this species became a host for a particularly nasty disease for which the majority of cultivated bananas have no defenses.
The disease had been confined to Asia and Australia, but now it's popped up in Mozambique and Jordan and this is real cause for concern, placing it much closer to devastating global banana and plantain production in a way that's never been seen before.
You may think that this sounds alarmist, especially when you consider that Panama disease spreads very slowly, and Big Banana would agree with you.
"This is something that this industry has dealt with for decades," Chiquita's Ed Lloyd told Quartz. "It's not a 'sky is falling' sort of situation."
Ploetz agrees. Up to a point.
"Bananas aren't going to go extinct — they're not going to disappear," he says. "What [Dole and Chiquita] have in their favor is that it's not going to move through their plantation like wildfire ... But the problem is its cryptic nature: Once you have it, you don't know how widespread it is."
But for 400 million people in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean, Tropical Race 4 doesn't have to spread that fast to begin shrinking the food supply for these countries who depend so deeply on bananas. There are 227 million people in Africa who depend on bananas. Many of these people are small-scale farmers who are already underfed.
So how does Fusarium wilt do its damage?
This soil pathogen infects the root system and goes on to colonize the plant by traveling through the vascular system – it even manages to make its way into the leaves and eventually kills the plant. This strain of Panama disease can't be controlled or cured by anything other than soil treatments – which are so toxic to the environment that they are prohibited almost universally around the world, Panama reports.
Ever the opportunist, this strain is spread easily by people – via the dirt on shoes, tires on trucks, shipping containers or other infected equipment. It's also spread through rain, floods, and run-off water. Since nearly all of the world's Cavendish bananas are clones, a disease attacking one plant can attack them all, according to the FAO (the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization) reports, according to Bloomberg News.
So growers from all over Latin America put their heads together in March, in the hopes of finding ways to slow the spread of the fungus, Eduardo Ledesma, director of the Banana Exporters' Association in Ecuador. There aren't any specific regional measures in place, but growers in Ecuador have requested the government to fumigate all containers, he said.
"If we carry out these controls at a regional level, then it will be very difficult for it to spread," Ledesma said, while he was in Guayaquil, Ecuador. "Not impossible, because nothing is impossible in life, but very difficult."
Dole Food Co. reports that the disease is not yet present in the Americas or western Africa, which is where the company imports supplies, and it's trying to find ways to develop a disease-resistant banana. For its part, Fresh Del Monte said none of the company farms in Latin America have been impacted, and there's no reason to think that's going to change anytime soon. The company said it's taking steps to prevent contaminated material from entering its farms and container yards. A spokesperson for Chiquita declined to comment on what the company is doing to manage the risk.
In Queensland, Australia, one farm in Tully, which is about 800 miles north of Brisbane, was quarantined and some banana plants were destroyed after they were found to be diseased. Another quarantine 112 miles north of the farm was revoked after final tests were negative, and no other cases have been found.
After the farm was initially shut down, the first truckloads left in April and harvesting was once again allowed to resume, but this time under strict biosecurity arrangements. The government has said it's not feasible to eradicate the fungus.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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