The Most Common Banana Variety Is in Danger of Extinction

By Mike Pomranz |
FWX BANANAS IN DANGER OF GOING EXTINCT

© Elemental Studios / Alamy

The most common variety of bananas sold in grocery stores, known as the Cavendish cultivar, is in danger of going commercially extinct. But before you start to panic about what you will possibly split with three scoops of ice cream, chocolate, strawberries and whipped cream, you should know that this has happened before. Banana history may be repeating itself.

CNN recently looked into the danger the Cavendish faces and the history behind it. Until the mid-1960s, the vast majority of bananas imported into the US were a variety known as Gros Michel. But by 1965, the Gros Michel was no longer commercially viable: A fungal disease known as “the Panama disease” ravaged many farms.

To fix the problem, banana growers switched to the Cavendish species. They considered the Cavendish somewhat inferior, but it was immune to the disease. Quickly, Cavendish bananas became as ubiquitous on US store shelves.

If you can’t see where this is going, you’re about as blind as the banana industry is made to look in CNN’s article. A new strain of the Panama disease has emerged, called “Tropical Race 4,” and it has a taste for Cavendish plants. Though we’re still a long way from losing the banana as we know it today, the disease has already spread from Asia to Australia to Africa. Experts hope this time around growers can learn from past mistakes.

“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,” Joao Augusto, a plant pathologist working with the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture in Mozambique, told CNN.

According to experts, the heart of the problem is that, unlike fruits like apples that are divided into many commonly eaten variets, there simply isn’t enough diversity in the current banana crops. “India had about 600 varieties, but over the past two decades the Cavendish has pushed out and replaced many of those. And when you replace a varied multiculture with a monoculture, if a disease happens, you're in trouble: nature comes back and bites you," said Dan Koeppel, author of the book Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World. “Monoculture to me is just as much a disease as TP4.”

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