Are We Near an Imminent Banana Crisis?

Spend Matters welcomes this guest post from Liliana Minton, of Mintec.

Bananas. Some sources label them as the world’s healthiest food due to their long list of health benefits. They are high in antioxidants, are thought to aid digestion and even combat some types of cancer. With more than 100 billion bananas consumed every year, they are one of the most important food crops in the world after wheat, rice and corn.

Recently, though, bananas have made headlines not due to their health benefits but because a powerful disease is threatening the banana industry.

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The Panama disease, also known as Fusarium wilt, is a lethal fungal disease affecting the banana plant, which blocks the flow of water and nutrients and eventually kills the plant. The disease affects Cavendish bananas, the most popular banana variety grown globally, mainly produced for the export market.

This disease has been resistant to fungicides, and therefore it cannot be controlled chemically, as would normally be the case. This causes a lot of anxiety in the industry. In 1950, a deadly strain of the same disease caused irreversible damage in the banana plantations in Central and South America, destroying Gros Michel banana, the world’s most consumed variety at the time.

After the Gros Michel was wiped out, it was replaced by the Cavendish, which went on to become the most popular variety produced thanks to its resistance, at the time, to the deadly fungus. Cavendish represents around 47% of the global production.

However, a new strain of the fungus was discovered in Taiwan in 1990 and is now attacking Cavendish plants in South East Asia, slowly spreading to countries such as China, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and even northern Australia.

Around 91 million tonnes of bananas are produced every year. Global production is worth approximately $5 billion a year, and this second outbreak of Panama disease has already caused damage of over $400 million. Major global banana exporters are Latin American countries. Global exports of bananas amount to over 18 million tonnes, with Ecuador being the world’s top exporter, accounting for around 31% of global exports, followed by the Philippines with 11%.

The industry is nervous of the disease spreading to other major producing regions such as Ecuador and other parts of Latin America as the disease is easily transmitted by soil, water and air. In fact, such is the risk that the 2016 International Banana Congress was relocated from Costa Rica to Miami, in order to reduce the spread of the fungus due to concerns that delegates would bring contaminated soil into the country.

Scientists are now looking for a new variety that is resistant to the fungus in order to replace the Cavendish, which has no replacement at the moment. Banana breeding, however, is a complex and long-term endeavour, and it may take decades to produce varieties that meet biological and economic demands. We can only hope that with advances in modern technology there is hope for the Cavendish banana.

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