Panama disease also had another consequence that affects modern bananas; they all now come from a clone of one banana tree, much like the Navel Oranges we talked about last week. There are almost a thousand varieties of bananas in the world, but the banana commonly found in the grocery store is known as the Cavendish banana. So how did this tropical fruit end up with a distinctly British-sounding name? Simple: Sometime in 1834, William Spencer Cavendish, Duke of Devonshire, became obsessed with bananas after a sole fruit had been shipped to him, and he wanted to grow some of his own. In his pursuit of the delicious yellow fruit, he instructed his gardener to make his dream a reality. The studious gardener, (we gardeners are a studious folk after all) managed to get several banana trees from China sent to the estate, but all of them perished during the perilous journey, all except for one that is. The surviving tree was treated with love and care while the eager English noblemen waited for the fruit to grow. It matured and produced fruit (technically a berry) that was bright yellow and easy to peel. Within a hundred years, the estate was producing vast amounts of bananas. The hearty cuttings left the Cavendish estate and flooded plantations across the globe. It came to be known as the Cavendish banana, but it wasn’t all that popular. The Gros Michel banana was sweeter and had a more distinct flavor that delighted taste buds the world over.
Fruit producers planted Cavendish cuttings and the banana bounced back to the point where today, millions of people on the planet have only ever eaten the modern Cavendish banana.
The war isn’t over though, and the bad news is that bananas are looking destined for extinction. In recent years, a new form of Panama disease has popped up, and not even the Cavendish is safe anymore. Banana crops all over South East Asia have failed as a result of this new form of Panama disease, and it’s only a matter of time until it spreads. In 10 years, bananas as we know it are going to be a thing of the past. Sad, but there is hope.
Bananas are one of the most traded foods on the planet, and demand for the bright yellow fruit has increased year after year. From 2001 through to 2012, banana exports increased from 11.5 million tons to 16.5 million tons, which is a 7 billion dollar industry. While the world is clamoring for more bananas, the return of Panama Disease in 1990 is once again threatening the world’s banana crops, and it’s already left a heavy impact. The crisis in the 1950s cost the banana industry over 2.3 billion dollars, and the new variation of Panama disease has already cost the banana industry over 400 million dollars and is projected to get much, much worse. With that much money involved you can bet there is a demand for an answer.
Currently, Panama Disease has only appeared in a handful of locations, and thanks to modern advances in quarantine and identification measures, its spread has been slowed down, but not stopped. One country that is currently battling the spread of Panama Disease is Australia, where occurrences of the fungus are routine and account for a loss of half of all banana plants. Working with the Australian government, researchers have made huge progress in genetically modifying bananas in order to make them resistant to Panama Disease. The Lady Finger variety of bananas had its genome mapped in 2012, which revealed that it was resistant to Panama Disease. Researchers then copied the genes responsible for the immunity and inserted them into the genes of the Cavendish variety.
I am not a big fan of genetically modifying our food, especially if another approach is available. Growers in the Philippines have been very active in researching a way to breed a more resilient banana using traditional cross breeding techniques with some of those other 1000 varieties of bananas I mentioned earlier. Personally, I am much more interested in these methods then in a laboratory solution.