Last time Dr. Foodle looked at bananas, we explored the tumultuous past of the beloved fruit. This time, we’re going to look at the future of the threatened plant and show how science, corporations, and governments are working together to learn from the past and save bananas.
Bananas are one of the most traded foods on the planet, and demand for the bright yellow fruit has increased year after year. From 2001 through to 2012, banana exports increased from 11.5 million tons to 16.5 million tons, which is a 7 billion dollar industry. While the world is clamoring for more bananas, the return of Panama Disease in 1990 is once again threatening the world’s banana crops, and it’s already left a heavy impact. The crisis in the 1950s cost the banana industry over 2.3 billion dollars, and the new variation of Panama disease has already cost the banana industry over 400 million dollars and is projected to get much, much worse.
A big part of the problem is that modern bananas are an example of a monoculture crop. Monoculture crops are plants that are genetically identical, or very similar. While monocultures can produce high yields and uniform crops that are ideal for shipping, they are incredibly susceptible to fungi, insects, and disease. As we explored last time, Cavendish bananas are all descended from one lonely banana plant from Britain, making them virtually all clones. Since the Cavendish isn’t immune to the modern strain of Panama Disease, it’s really only a matter of time until they face the same fate as the Gros Michel. Unlike the 1950s, we’ve got the tools to create a new banana.
Currently, Panama Disease has only appeared in a handful of locations, and thanks to modern advances in quarantine and identification measures, its spread has been slowed down. One country that is currently battling the spread of Panama Disease is Australia, where occurrences of the fungus are routine. Working with the Australian government, researchers have made huge progress in genetically modifying bananas in order to make them resistant to Panama Disease. The Lady Finger variety of bananas had its genome mapped in 2012, which revealed that it was resistant to Panama Disease. Researchers then copied the genes responsible for the immunity and inserted them into the genes of the Cavendish variety. Australia planted the first test crops for the genetically modified bananas in 2014 to great success. Australia isn’t the only country racing the find a solution; the Philippines has been very active in researching a way to make a more resilient banana, as well as other countries and corporations.
It’s hard to imagine how much effort, money, and research hours are being spent.
on bananas. To most people, bananas are little more than a healthy and convenient snack. But if it weren’t for an eccentric British Duke from the 1800s, we wouldn’t have bananas today. Now, researchers all across the globe are unlocking the secrets of life and genetics, and wielding that knowledge to save a grocery store staple. So next time you’re in the fruit aisle in the grocery store, take a second to appreciate the rich history behind bananas and all of the groundbreaking work being done to preserve their future.