Tropical Fungus Threatens Banana Extinction

rotten banana

Cavendish bananas, which make up 99 percent of the bananas on the market today, are now facing extinction from a fungus called Tropical Race Four.

Tropical Race Four and the Cavendish Banana

Also called Panama Wilt [pdf], Tropical Race Four has been identified as damaging Cavendish banana crops since the 60’s. It had a few resurgences in the last 15 years, and now it threatens the future of the Cavendish banana.

While it seems like a no-brainer to switch to a more resistant type of banana, the Cavendish is one of the few that grows quickly, tastes good, and can withstand the long trip from the farm to our grocery store.

The Future of the Banana

Panama Wilt has attacked crops in Indonesia, Taiwan, China, and the Phillipines, among other banana-producing areas. According to a recent New Yorker article:

Scientists believe that Tropical Race Four, which has caused tens of millions of dollars’ worth of damage, will ultimately find its way to Central Americaβ€”and to the fruit that Americans buy.

While there have been outbreaks of Panama Wilt in the past, this is the largest one to date, and scientists are scrambling to find a solution. Right now, groups are working on developing genetically modified bananas and on naturally breeding a resistant Cavendish banana.

I know a lot of you have strong feelings about genetically modified foods. If these GM or hybrid bananas were the only ones available, would you eat them?

Image Credit: Creative Commons photo by booleansplit

Written by Becky Striepe

15 Comments

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  1. Fortunately there are hundreds of banana varieties, and a handful of these that can replace the Cavendish. Most people forget the Big Mike. This banana variety preceded the Cavendish, and was bigger, and better tasting. It was wiped out by a virus in the 60’s I believe, and these viruses are particularly devastating because the bananas all share the same genetic code.

      • I don’t know the names, but there are dozens of wild varieties, and even more dozens of cultivated varieties ready for large-scale growing.
        And yes, I would eat a GM banana. Only Luddites and those with know knowledge of biology fear GM foods.

  2. I would be tempted, as I usually have a banana every day.
    However – I think that my extremely negative thinking about GM would stop me from eating any more bananas until I could be assured that what was on offer was both disease-free and GM-free.
    I have some problems already with eating bananas daily because of the journey involved before I can buy them.
    So I am already beginning to look into other sources of the vitamins and minerals that i get from my banana.

  3. I doubt it. The best banana I ever had in my life was picked fully ripe from a tree in Hawaii as I watched. I haven’t really wanted to eat imported bananas since then, especially after learning that farmers growing single crops for export exacerbate food shortages in their own communities. I’m happy with local fruit. (Now if only cacao could be grown in California!)

    Anyway, shouldn’t we have learned that genetic variety is good with past events like the potato blight?

  4. Today I realized(after I ate 3 and my duaghter ate one) that the tips of my bananas all looked cut off and molded at the bottom. Could this have something to do with it? My daughter got sick last night and I am a little queezy. I am curious if the tips were intentionally cut off or if this Panama Wilt had gotten to the ends. I am EXTREMELY concerned and not sure what to do now.

  5. Bananas have already been modified beyond recognition. In fact most of our fruit and veg has. Bananas are also clones and as such are prone to being wiped out in one fell swoop by a fungus or other pathogen. This has happened at least once in the past as the bananas your grandparents ate no longer exist due to being wiped of the face of the earth. Our best bet is to introduce a greater variety of genetic variation either through selective breeding, gm techniques or a combination of the two.

  6. No, I already by the fresh organic bananas, but will buy some products such as a muffin or bread at bakeries that aren’t. However, if it went to being a GMO I certianly would not buy any product that contained banans.

  7. Becky,
    I’m not sure it would be possible to get a GMO banana with resistance to Fusarium race 4. There are no examples of successful disease resistance traits via GMO except for on in wheat that is sort of a special case. There was interest in that back in the 1990s, but my understanding is that all those projects were dropped (the ones I worked on were).

    The more likely scenario is that they will find a resistant banana in nature like they did when an earlier race wiped out the “Grand Nain” variety that preceded the Cavendish. It is difficult; however, because it takes a long time to learn how to successfully ship a new cultivar.

    The main thing to do is to try to prevent the race 4 from getting to Central America

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