When The World Is Banana-Free, Will We Finally Understand The Importance Of Diversity In Agriculture?

Adults who grew up before the mid-1900s might eat a banana and feel like it just doesn’t taste as good as it did growing up. That’s because today’s bananas are a different variety than the type of bananas sold commercially before the middle of last century. Before today’s bananas, called the Cavendish banana, most of the world ate a sweeter, creamier variety of banana called the Gros Michel banana, but that variety is virtually extinct. A fungus known as Panama Disease wiped out the Gros Michel in a matter of only a few decades. The Cavendish was used in agriculture because it was resistant to the fungal attacks. The Cavendish banana is just about the only banana sold today. Cavendish are clones of themselves. Cloning the banana plants allows great uniformity that is expected in the food industry. Unfortunately, cloning allows for almost no genetic variation, and leaves the banana exceptionally vulnerable to pests and fungal attacks. In nature, the stronger genetics would survive and the plants would evolve as pests and fungus evolved.

As it turns out, Panama Disease kept changing while the Cavendish banana did not, and scientists say that these bananas, which represent 99 percent of the banana market, are facing extinction. The Washington Post says there is no known way to stop the extinction or contain the Panama Disease. A new study published in PLOS Pathogens, Tropical Race 4, a more potent mutation of Panama Disease, is on a rampage across the globe.

A previous article in the Inquisitr featured the details of the plight of the banana. Companies like Dole and Chiquita like cloned bananas for “control for consistency and produce massive amounts of bananas on the cheap without having to deal with imperfections,” the Washington Post states, adding, “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.”

In the 1800s, the preference for a single variety of potato was responsible for the Irish Potato Blight. Monocultures backfire. The country depended on a variety of potato for most of their basic nutrition. As a result, hundreds of thousands of people died. Thanks to the plight of the banana clones of today, the failure of monoculture is again obvious. Here’s the worst part: unlike last century, when Panama Disease attacked the tastier version of the banana, this time, we don’t have a formidable replacement. We also don’t have any formidable treatments to stop the impending banana extinction. The fungus can spread through shipping containers, the dirt on the bottom of shoes, and even tires, according to the Smithsonian.

“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 (rather than an orphan crop) that supports the livelihoods of millions of small-holder farmers,” the scientists involved in the new study explained.

Our propensity towards choosing monoculture needs to stop, experts say.

Consumers are moving toward demanding diversity in agriculture, but will the industry make the change towards sustainability fast enough?

Even diversity in livestock is becoming lost. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, “Up to 30% of global mammalian and avian livestock breeds (i.e., 1,200 to 1,500 breeds) are currently at risk of being lost and cannot be replaced.”

While commercial breeds of livestock have greater genetic variability than most crops do, “if continued emphasis on breed replacement and increasing selection intensity (e.g. for greater productivity) take place at the expense of maintenance of genetic diversity, including the advantages of disease resistance and environmental adaptation, there may be significant long-term costs,” the United Nation’s report said.

In light of the threatened extinction of the banana, would you like to see more diversity in agriculture?

[Image via Pixabay]