From My WindowIssue Date: November 15, 2017
Going Bananas Or Are Bananas Going?
By Jane Thibodeau Martin,
There have been ominous references in some of my reading material to a devastating disease which is killing banana plants in many countries. I've avoided looking into this topic until now, because (1) I love bananas and (2) the news, in general, is so depressing I try not to subject myself to more than is absolutely necessary to be an informed citizen. But the thought of not being able to get one of our preferred fruits at the store finally forced me to do the research to find out what is really going on.
Nearly every single banana consumed in the United States is a variety called "Cavendish." When you see such total uniformity of a fruit, it may not be obvious that there are many different banana cultivars, much like there are dozens of varieties of apple: Gala, McIntosh, Granny Smiths, etc. But the Cavendish is the variety that proved resistant to a fungal attack that killed off 100 % of the banana plants of a different variety, which at one time was the favorite variety, starting around 1903. By 1965, the "Gros Michel" species was extinct.
Having one main variety of any important crop provides consistent harvests, and makes cultivation and pest control simpler. But it also means that when an insect or fungal attack occurs, or weather changes, and that variety is susceptible; an entire industry can suffer. And that's what is happening again now, more than 50 years after Cavendish became the key commercially grown replacement banana by default. Entire banana plantations are dying as a disease that attacks the plants spreads. The disease is a fungus called Tropical Race 4, and it is spread through soil, wind, car tires, and contaminated tools. It attacks the root system of the plant, and there is no treatment available to stop it from spreading except burning infected plantations. Once a grove has been infected, it can't be used for Cavendish banana growing again, as the pathogen remains in the soil.
The Cavendish banana is so extremely popular that more and more growers across the globe switched to it. At one time India had more than 600 different varieties of banana family plants. But globally, the Cavendish gradually pushed some of them out of commercial cultivation. This is the hazard of "monoculture" crops. Some of those older, "heirloom" varieties of bananas may be more resistant to TR4, but there are fewer of them left to clone as possible replacements as the Cavendish die out. (Botanically, a banana is a berry, and grows on an herbaceous flowering plant. Plantations are created from clones from existing mature plants, not from seeds.)
While this disease was still actively spreading recently, scientists and agricultural leaders in banana-producing countries are actively teaching farmers what practices to avoid to halt the spread of TR4, as well as researching replacement varieties of bananas that combine disease resistance along with the popular qualities of the Cavendish banana. So take a deep breath, you will continue to be able to buy familiar bananas for the foreseeable future.
We need only to look at history for an example of the hazard of over-dependence on a single crop variant. The Irish Potato Famine that started around 1845 resulted in the starvation of more than a million people " due to the failure of their staple crop, potatoes. The potatoes were attacked by a blight caused by a mold. Another example, which is already starting to have a big economic impact on Florida, is a disease called Citrus Greening, which attacks orange trees.
Bananas are America's favorite fruit. We eat more bananas than apples and oranges combined. While there will not be mass starvation in the U.S. due to the banana crop failures, there is a good lesson for all of us in this threat. Monoculture agriculture comes with a risk, and we are unwise to "put all our eggs in a single basket."
Government scientists work on new variants of mainstay crops, experimenting to find those most disease resistant, and those which require less chemical pesticides which are both harmful and expensive. There are people among us, many of them organic farmers, but some just hobby gardeners, who seek out and cultivate "heirloom" varieties of various fruits and vegetables. These scientists and farmers are preserving a genetic diversity that is a treasure that could be critically important to us some day, with the two pronged approach of preserving heirloom varieties as well as developing new ones.
As our weather patterns continue to change, some of our mainstay crops could become vulnerable due to higher temperatures, decreased rainfall, exploding damaging insect populations or more frequent severe storms and floods. Plants that used to grow well in the Midwest may have to be grown much further north, or replaced with more drought and heat-tolerant crops. Having that treasure chest of alternative varieties of crops could be more valuable than gold to our children and grandchildren.
In the meantime, I appreciate my morning Cavendish even more. With plenty of fiber, vitamins C and B-6 and just over 100 calories, all packaged in a sanitary and biodegradable wrapper; it's a marvel of healthy nutrition. I may even try eating the peels " during my information search, I discovered many people in other countries eat the peels, after first washing them and cooking them either by boiling or frying. Much of the beneficial potassium in bananas is stored in the peel.
I can easily live without banana cream pie or banana pudding, things I've never really liked. But plain bananas are part of a good morning for me, and I don't like the thought I could someday have to learn to do without them.
You can reach me for commentary, alternative viewpoints or ideas at this e-mail address: Janiethibmartin@gmail.com.
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