The $12 billion Cavendish banana export industry is currently in danger of going extinct due to the spread of an evolved form of the same fungus that wiped out the Gros Michel Banana in the 1950s. Bananas of the Cavendish variety are exclusively exported across the globe and are the world’s most eaten fruit by volume. The particular type of banana replaced the Gros Michel, or Big Mike cultivar of banana, as the breed of choice for plantations and farmers. Now, a deadly fungus called the Panama disease, or Tropical Race 4 (TR4), is infecting plantations in Mozambique, where there is an estimated half a million workers employed by banana plantations. The fungus itself had already killed millions of bananas in Asia since the 1980s and most recently the strain has infected banana plantations in Queensland, Australia.
According to a report from BBC News, Mozambique’s Ministry of Agriculture has speculated that the disease may have come from the infected boots of two workers from the Philippines. The strain itself isn’t endemic to the country, which means that someone or something had brought it to Africa. The fungus initially infects the soil before it attacks the rest of the banana plant. Infected plants usually sport yellowing leaves and often exude a rotting smell. The strain also produces spores that survive for decades underground, which means that infected soil can no longer be used.
Plantations in neighboring countries such as Tanzania have also expressed their concern regarding the possible spread of the disease. However, it is yet to be determined if the local bananas grown outside of the export industry are resistant to the Panama disease. The biggest problem with getting rid of the infection is the way the plant is being cultivated. Cavendish bananas are monoculture crops, which means that it is more susceptible to disease, and natural selection has no way of aiding in combating the infection.
Instead of trying to find a cure, farmers in Mozambique and the rest of the world are now looking to invest heavily in the adaptation of a Taiwanese Cavendish banana called a Formosana. The particular strain has shown some resistance to the Panama disease, but additional work has to be done to properly breed a future variant that will be able to fight off the infection.