Food Trends

Are bananas going extinct?

The Cavendish banana could be wiped out by a deadly fungus.

The Cavendish banana could be wiped out by a deadly fungus.  (iStock)

A virulent strain of a banana-destroying fungus that has threatened banana crops in East and Southeast Asia is making its way around the globe and has scientists warning of the fruit’s extinction.

According to a study appearing in the online science journal PLOS Pathogens by researchers at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, a strain of the soil-borne fungus Fusarium oxysporum f.sp. cubense—also known as the Panama disease--has the potential to wipe out the world’s $11 billion banana industry.

Tracing the genetic makeup of the fungus, researchers found that a single clone of the Panama disease fungus called Tropical Race 4 is killing the Cavendish banana –the world’s most popular variety and one you see at the grocery store.

Gert Kema, banana expert at Wageningen University and Research Center, who co-authored the study, tells Quartz how in the 1960s Tropical Race 4 was found in Indonesia and spread to Taiwan and China and the rest of Southeast Asia.  In all the countries it hit, banana exports slowly fell over several decades. While it takes years for the disease to take root, once it does the decline is inevitable.

The Panama disease attacks plants’ vascular systems, causing them to wilt rapidly and turn yellow-brown due to lack of water.  Part of the problem is that the fungus can’t be killed and can only be contained.  But efforts to contain the disease aren’t working, he warns.

Kema says that the fungus has now leapt to Pakistan, Lebanon, Jordan, Oman, and Mozambique, and Australia’s northeast Queensland –and is only a matter of time before it lands in Latin America, where some more than three-fifths of the planet’s exported bananas are grown.

So are the days of the banana’s numbered? It’s unclear but some clues may be gleaned from past outbreaks.

In the 1800s, a similar strain of the Panama disease spread through the world’s population of the Gros Michel banana, then the most popular variety consumed. Gros Michel was wiped out but scientists in the U.K. kept small quantities of a similar variety –the Cavendish banana --for study that proved resistant to the original fungus. "A new clone was 'born' that, along with the new tissue culture techniques, helped save and globalize banana production," the report reads.

Over the past 50 years, the Cavendish banana have become a grocery store staple, but the study notes that while the Cavendish was resistant to the Panama disease strain that wiped out Gros Michel, it’s not resistant to Tropical Race 4.

Making the situation more serious is the fact that there’s no genetic diversity in the world’s Cavendish banana population because every seed is basically cloned, meaning they don’t evolve.  This makes them defenseless against the disease.  Meanwhile, people eat a lot more bananas than they did 40 years ago. 

The solution?

Find the next Cavendish. But it won’t be easy, say researchers.

Say the study authors, "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.”

In the meantime, it's probably okay to put that banana in your smoothy--for now.