Banana-Geddon? Rapidly Spreading Disease Threatens a Favorite Fruit

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Researchers predict extinction for the world's most popular commercial fruit as a new strain of pathogen decimates crops.

The banana as we know it is doomed, scientists are warning.

The world’s most popular fruit is being threatened by a new strain of Panama disease, a deadly pathogen that forced the once-popular Gros Michel banana nearly into extinction in the mid-1900s, The Washington Post reports.

Now Panama disease, in a new and more potent form known as Tropical Race 4, threatens Cavendish bananas, which replaced the sweet, creamy Gros Michel variety as the world’s top banana export. According to the Post, Cavendish bananas represent 99 percent of the banana market.

A new study published in PLOS Pathogens reveals that Tropical Race 4 is wreaking havoc on banana crops in Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Australia, and will likely turn up in Latin America, where most of the world’s bananas for export are grown. It effectively wiped out banana crops in Taiwan.

According to the Post, the researchers say that “it’s not a question of whether Tropical Race 4 will infiltrate the mothership of global banana production; it’s a matter of when.”

Unfortunately, the deadly pathogen, which infects the root system of banana plants, cannot be cured. It’s spread through infected soil, water, root to root contact or contaminated equipment. The disease can also lie dormant for decades.

The long-lasting and aggressive disease is especially frightening considering the global dependence on Cavendish bananas, said Dr. Elizabeth Aitken, a University of Queensland associate professor in plant pathology.

“I do find it scary, relying on just one cultivar [Cavendish],” said Aitken, speaking with Australian Broadcasting Corp. Aitken added that it’s important to “put more effort into breeding other [banana] varieties.”

According to the Post, although dozens of varieties of bananas are grown around the world, commercially produced bananas are all the same.

This helps companies like Dole and Chiquita control for consistency and produce massive amounts of bananas on the cheap without having to deal with imperfections (it’s the reason why the fruit is so easy to find at supermarkets everywhere). But it also makes their bananas incredibly vulnerable to attacks from pests and disease. 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.

If the Cavendish banana follows the same path as its predecessor, the Gros Michel, as is predicted, the world will need to find a new variety of commercial banana. Unfortunately, that’s easier said than done.

“Developing new banana cultivars, however, requires major investments in research and development and the recognition of the banana as a global staple and cash crop that supports the livelihoods of millions of small-holder farmers,” according to the study published by PLOS Pathogens.

What do you think about the predicted wipeout of the commercial banana? Share your comments below or on our Facebook page.

Stacy Johnson

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