Dying Bananas

This is the story of a banana.

This banana has a name – meet Kirk. Say hi to Kirk.

cartoon banana

The banana is the 4th most important crop from developing countries -an economic powerhouse. It is an inexpensive fruit, nutritious and versatile. Easy to pack in a lunch. No wonder it is so popular.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimated global banana production reached a peak of 114 million tonnes in 2017.

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What if the entire banana population were wiped out? It almost happened before and could happen again.

Kirk has a last name – Cavendish. In fact, almost the entire exported banana population has the name Cavendish. The Cavendish is the world’s most popular banana. However, that was not always the case. In the early 1900s, it was a banana called Gros Michel (Big Mike) that was the king of fruit. It had a thick, resilient skin that allowed for easier export. The thin-skinned banana varieties could not handle shipping. They were used for local consumption.

Big Mike bananas
Bike Mike and Cavendish bananas
Gros Michel compared with the Cavendish

The North American & European markets were growing in demand, so Big Mike was THE banana of choice. Unlike the cooking banana – Big Mike was a desert banana because of its sweetness. Plus, it was perceived as a healthy fruit. Banana producing countries switched to growing ONLY Big Mike bananas for export. The world banana economy became dependent on a single crop.

Alas – Big Mike was to meet with a tragic end – and just about the end of the banana itself. A condition called Panama Disease spread through the banana producing countries. It was a fungus – called Tropical Race One –  that grew in the soil and killed the banana plant. By the 1950s Big Mike was no more – the entire world’s supply was wiped out by the Panama Disease.

That is when farmers turned to the Cavendish banana because of its resistance to the fungus. The Cavendish is named after William Cavendish, 6th Duke of Devonshire. His gardener cultivated the banana and it was shipped to other countries. Today the Cavendish represents 95% of the world’s exports.

It is now the “top banana”.

Guess what? The fungus is back with a vengeance. It has targeted not only the Cavendish but other local bananas for destruction. This one is called Tropical Race 4 and the Cavendish isn’t resistant to this one. Race 4 appeared in the 90s in Taiwan and has been spreading across Southeast Asia and Australia.

Race 4 has not reached Latin America – yet. It is only a matter of when. Because it is a soil disease, not an airborne disease, it travels more slowly. But travel it does. It can wipe out the entire banana industry.

What can be done? Variety is the necessity of life. Instead of relying on just one cultivar of banana, like we have done for the last 100 years, we need to use our first world science and technology to develop different types of bananas that are resistant to the fungus. Our obligation is to help the banana producing countries.

The loss of the Cavendish would be an inconvenience for us in the first world. It will be devastating, both economically and nutritionally for Southeast Asia, China, Indonesia, Africa, South America and the Caribbean. The time to act is now. You can be a BFF – Banana Friend Forever – by visiting this website and finding out more on how to help the banana.

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