Disease Threatens Bananas: World’s Favorite Fruit Faces Possible Extinction, Researchers Say

Disease threatens bananas and the popular fruit is facing possible extinction, researchers say. A new strain of a fungus, known as Panama Disease, is threatening the existence of the Cavendish bananas, which accounts for the majority of banana exports and represents 99 percent of the market. According to a report from the Washington Post, the Cavendish was chosen as the replacement for Gros Michel because, among resistant cultivars, it produces the highest quality fruit. However, Cavendish is almost certain to be eliminated from commercial production by this disease.

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Gros Michel was the chief banana export until 1965, which was the year the species was declared commercially extinct due to Panama disease, a fungal infection that started in Central America and quickly spread to other commercial banana plantations across the world. The devastation was great and many crops had to be burned.

Wikipedia explained that Panama disease is caused by a fusarium soil fungus (Race 1), which enters the plants through the roots and travels with water into the trunk and leaves, producing gels and gums that cut off the flow of water and nutrients, causing the plant to wilt, and exposing the rest of the plant to lethal amounts of sunlight.

A report from PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America) further explains the research.

“The global yield of bananas—one of the most important food crops—is severely hampered by parasites, such as nematodes, which cause yield losses up to 75%,” an excerpt from the report reads. “Plant–nematode interactions of two banana cultivars differing in susceptibility to Radopholus similis were investigated by combining the conventional and spatially resolved analytical techniques. The importance of varying local concentrations of these specialized metabolites in infected plant tissues, their involvement in the plant’s defense system, and derived strategies for improving banana resistance are highlighted.”

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There are hundreds of varieties of bananas in the world, but only the Cavendish accounts for almost all exports. The Sydney Morning Herald wrote that researchers warn that the strain, which first began wrecking havoc in Southeast Asia some 50 years ago and has more recently spread to other parts of Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Australia, will eventually make its way to Latin America, where the vast majority of the world’s exported bananas are still grown. At this point, they say, it’s not a question of whether Tropical Race 4 will infiltrate the mothership of global banana production; it’s a matter of when.

According to Joao Augusto, a plant pathologist, there are not many options to effectively control the disease.

“It cannot be eradicated, but it can be limited if a wide range of strong preventive and mitigation initiatives are put in place and rigorously implemented,” Augusto said. “In countries where the disease is endemic, the banana growers have learned to live with it.”

The disease is not more virulent than the one that killed the Gros Michel, but it’s spreading because the bad practices from 50 years ago are still in place.

“The banana industry is in denial about this, and standard agricultural quarantines like fencing the crops and cleaning the equipment are not enough,” added Aigusto.

The only solution would be to burn the plantation down and start over, but with a different crop. Restarting with bananas doesn’t work because the fungus stays in the soil.

[Image via Christopher Furlong/Getty Images News]