How human intervention may doom the world's most popular fruit – or possibly save it.

By Steve Bender
August 19, 2019
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Here are some interesting facts you may not know about bananas. They don't come from trees. A banana plant is an herbaceous perennial -- what you call a trunk is really a non-woody thing called a pseudostem. At up to 20 feet tall in their native land in southeast Asia, they are the largest flowering herbaceous perennials in the world. They are also the widely consumed fruit in the world – more bananas are eaten in this country than apples and oranges combined. And unless scientists and growers take immediate and effective steps, the big "Chiquita" banana you love so much may disappear.

To understand why, we need to review a bit of history and how bananas grow. If you've ever traveled abroad or have a really good farmer's market or grocery, you know there are many more types of banana than that long, yellow one sold every week at the supermarket. My mouth still waters as I recall small, plump, incredibly sweet bananas I bought at a farmer's market in Hawaii years ago. Most bananas are inedible due to a plethora of large, hard seeds inside. Edible bananas have either speck-like seeds or none at all.

When a pseudostem grows tall enough, it flowers and produces a cluster of fruit called a hand. After the fruit ripens, that pseudostem dies and new pseudostems sprout from the base around it. They can either be left in place or divided and planted elsewhere. Asexual reproduction is the only way to get more plants of seedless types, as their flowers fruit without pollination.

‘Cavendish' is the main commercial banana grown today, because it tastes good, has no seeds, ships well, and looks like the big, yellow banana we expect. But it wasn't always the champ. Prior to the 1950s, ‘Gros Michel' ("Big Mike") held that title. It was even bigger and tastier than ‘Cavendish.' Then a deadly, soil-borne disease called Fusarium oxysporum cubense ‘Race 1' (aka "Panama Wilt") appeared in Latin America, quickly destroying entire banana plantations. Nothing stopped it. The big, yellow banana seemed doomed.

Here Today, Gone Tomorrow?

Enter our present-day ‘Cavendish.' Originating in a hothouse in England, it resisted Fusarium Race 1. Growers everywhere ripped out acres of ‘Gros Michel' and replaced it with this new kind. Soon ‘Cavendish' dominated the world banana market.

But there was a fata flaw in this strategy. Because ‘Cavendish' produces no seeds, it can only be propagated by division or tissue culture. This means each one on the planet is genetically identical to the original ‘Cavendish.' Should any serious disease or insect show up that targets ‘Cavendish', all could die.

That's exactly what's happening right now. Fusarium ‘Race 4' is in town all over the globe. ‘Cavendish' has no defense. The fungus spreads like proverbial wildfire, clogging up the plant's vascular system, and killing it. No chemical controls work. Once it's in the soil, there's no practical way of removing it.

‘Race 4' won't kill all bananas. Many types are resistant. They just don't taste good.

Why don't breeders just cross resistant bananas with ‘Cavendish' to make a resistant ‘Cavendish?' Because ‘Cavendish' is sterile and doesn't make seeds or pollen. It can't be hybridized.

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What's the answer? For that, take a look at the papaya. In the early 1990s, papaya ringspot virus emerged in Hawaii, the main source of the fruit in the U.S., and threatened to wipe out the entire crop. Traditional control methods proved completely ineffective. In the end, what saved the papaya was genetic engineering (GE). A viral gene inserted into the papaya's DNA provided resistance. When you eat a papaya today, you're eating a GMO.

Ultimately, GE may be the only thing standing between the ‘Cavendish' banana and extinction. Whether you want to eat a GMO banana-split is entirely up to you. I'll take my chances. Yum.

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