Cavendish bananas

Bananas are the world’s eighth most vital food crop. The tropical fruit comes in its own sterile packaging and is bursting with health benefits. Bananas are a great source of calcium, potassium, serotonin and vitamins B6 and C. They are a natural antacid and are easy to digest.

While there are hundreds of varieties of the banana, the yellow Cavendish is by far the most popular. More than 100 million metric tons are grown annually. Virtually all bananas sold in the Western world are Cavendish. Its bright yellow skin, firm texture and pleasant flavor make it great for eating by itself or using in recipes.

But it’s nearly ubiquitous status also means it is being grown with almost no genetic variety. The Cavendish is a sterile fruit that is propagated only by cloning. That genetic sameness makes it extremely vulnerable to decimating disease. A similar catastrophe has happened to the banana crop before.

Until 1960, the Gros Michel banana, or Big Mike, was the dominant banana exported to the U.S. By all reports, its creamy texture and heavenly taste were unparalleled. But in the 1950s, a fungus called the Panama disease emerged that destroyed almost all of the Big Mike crop within a decade. Banana growers quickly switched to the Cavendish. Although less tasty and prone to bruising, the Cavendish was resistant to the Panama disease.

But in 1989, a new strain of the disease, called TR4, attacked the Cavendish. First discovered in Asia, TR4 quickly spread to the Middle East and Africa. Every effort was made to prevent the disease from spreading to the vast banana plantations in Latin America. Were the fungus to reach that part of the world, some estimates predicted that 85% of the global banana crop could be destroyed.

That long-dreaded nightmare arrived earlier this summer when a Colombian grower noted symptoms of the disease on some of his crops. In July, the Colombian Agricultural Institute (ICA) in Bogotá confirmed four plantations in northern Colombia were under quarantine. Does that mean doomsday has arrived for the bright yellow fruit?

Maybe not. Researchers have been working diligently to create a genetically modified Cavendish that is immune to TR4. Scientists at the Queensland University of Technology in Australia have reported some early success with strains of a TR4-resistant Cavendish by using genes borrowed from other species. Testing is ongoing there and at research facilities worldwide.

Despite all the warnings about the dangers of genetically modified organisms and “Frankenfoods,” genetic engineering might be the best hope to save the banana crop. That process already has allowed researchers to develop corn that can survive drought, soybeans that stand up to weed killer, virus-free papayas and potatoes that don’t bruise.

We hope the answer is found soon. The world would go ape without bananas.

— Robin Beres

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