Sunday, July 24, 2011

No more bananas by mid-century?

Four varieties of banana (Wikimedia Commons)

They can see it coming. Most bananas sold today belong to the Cavendish variety, which is grown in extensive monoculture plantations around the world. The plants are virtually sterile, and are propagated by transplanting suckers or cuttings. The cultivar Gros Michel, which was the predecessor to the Cavendish, was wiped out in the early 20th century by a fungus called the Panama disease, Fusarium oxysporum f. sp. Cubense, which as the names suggest showed up in the Caribbean. A new strain of this fungal pathogen has emerged in recent decades to attack the Cavendish variety, which is now under threat. The new strain, called Tropical Race 4, has spread through the Asia-Pacific region, and has yet to hit Latin America, that other bastion of banana agriculture, but it's only a matter of time.

Possible solutions include genetically-modified strains of the Cavendish banana plant, or increasing the genetic variety of bananas in cultivation. Preserving genetic variation in crop foods is now an important concern, given the susceptibility of Green Revolution-style monoculture projects to pathogens. Seed banks around the world store varieties of important crops like the potato and rice as an insurance policy, as traditional cultivars are being abandoned for 'modern' high-yield plants. There is also a thriving trade in so-called 'heirloom seeds' among gardening enthusiasts and smaller-scale farms.

Will such measures be enough to save the banana? Time will tell, but the days of the big, starchy, and seedless Cavendish may be numbered. (Another fun new fact: India "grows and consumes more bananas than any other country in the world." Who knew?)

(via Gawker)

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