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Life's going bananas: the world's commonest fruit is in danger of dying

Payal Puri | Updated on: 11 February 2017, 5:52 IST

What\'s at stake

  • Bananas are a universal fruit. There are 1,000 species. But 95% of what the world eats is a single variety called Cavendish.
  • Bananas are a primary food for 400 million people. And also an $8.9 billion global trade.

The crisis

  • A disease called Panama Tropical Type 4 has hit the Cavendish in Asia, Africa, Australia.
  • Potentially, this could wipe the banana out unless a substitute variety is scaled up.

Facts you should know

  • Five companies dominate global trade. All are American.
  • They\'ve made Cavendish the dominant species because it\'s hardy and easy to transport. This has compounded the crisis.

You don't think about bananas, they're just there. Soon, though, they may not be.

A new strain of disease, the Panama Tropical Race 4, is threatening the world's most widely eaten banana, the Cavendish, with possible extinction.

It takes a while to understand the implications of that - and those implications go way beyond the banana bread you may never eat again, the smoothies you will no longer be able to order, the grab-and-go breakfast you consume without thinking.

The loss of bananas isn't just a crisis of nostalgia for a much-loved food: it's a food security issue of staggering proportions. Bananas are the prime source of nutrition for over almost 400 million of the world's poorest. They're the 8th most important food crop in the world, according to the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO); in developing countries like India and Africa they're the 4th most critical crop.

The fallout of a banana blight could be disastrous: it's an $8.9 billion industry. And India is the largest producer

Diseases affecting important crops aren't new; what's different is that bananas are a monoculture: 95% of the world's banana production is a single variety, the Cavendish, which makes any threat to it a potential time bomb for the entire global crop.

Most supposed monocultures - the potato, routinely considered one - are actually not; hundreds of varieties are grown around the world, and even minor genetic variations can often protect the species from disease.

Bananas, though, are a true monoculture - though there are over 1,000 known species, one single variety makes up the entire global trade - and that has made the fruit radically susceptible to destruction. Ironically, the Cavendish itself became the world's favourite species when in the 1950s the previous staple, the Gros Michel, fell to a different strain of Panama disease.

We have a ton of local varieties in India but even here 57%, or over half the country's bananas, are of the Cavendish family. Pretty much every banana that arrives at urban tables is the Cavendish. The small local bananas you find in parts of Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Kerala? Many of those are the Dwarf Cavendish.

There's a reason for that. In part, said Dan Koeppel, a researcher and author who has probably done more to highlight this impending disaster than anyone else in a piece for Popular Science, "Banana companies are lazy. They like what works." But there are other factors. For trade, bananas need to tick many boxes. They need to be hardy, to withstand being shipped across incredibly large distances. They need to be inexpensive, and be more or less similarly sized so their packaging and shipping can be standardised.

The economic fallout of a banana blight is potentially as disastrous as the food security one: banana trade is an $8.9 billion industry annually, with India being the world's largest producer of the fruit, though we're not a mainstream exporter. Pretty much our entire crop is for domestic consumption - but with over half our production being the Cavendish, if the disease arrives at Indian shores it would spell disaster.

That possibility is not hyperbole any longer. The disease, believed to have originated in Malaysia, spread across Southeast Asia before crossing the ocean to Australia - the first sign that a truly unstoppable attack may be underway - and has now crossed another ocean to Africa.

The United Nations is issuing serious warnings. Australia is on the warpath to try and control the disease, but with very little success. In densely populated parts of East Africa, the only source of carbohydrate for millions is the banana, so anxiety is running high.

The disease, which is soil borne, can remain viable for decades once it afflicts a particular region, with a chain of consequences we cannot immediately visualise. "Any disease or constraint that affects bananas is striking at an important source of food, livelihoods, employment and government revenues in many tropical countries," said Gianluca Gondolini, secretary of the World Banana Forum.

Researchers aren't agreed on how long the Cavendish has; estimates range from 5-10 years. While scientists are continuing to look for a cure for Panama type 4, they're not holding out too much hope; instead, there's an accelerated search to find a viable replacement that can be scaled to global levels within a decade.

Your best bet in the meanwhile? Order a banana split this week, and start your personal search for a new favourite fruit.

First published: 22 May 2015, 11:48 IST
Payal Puri @payalpuri

In a 19-year career Payal has been, among other things, editor of Cosmopolitan India, executive editor of a travel and design magazine, and worked briefly in lifestyle TV. Prior to joining Catch as Editor-at-Large, she was executive director of THiNK, a cutting-edge ideas event in Goa. She has a borderline manic enthusiasm for red wine, all things digital, Goa and chewing her nails, in no particular order. At Catch she oversees all things fun, features and lifestyle, including the site's internal Slack channels, which she runs like a personal fiefdom.