An herb. A fruit. A superfruit! A clone. The modern banana is something many of us take for granted. It’s at the front of neighborhood grocery stores and on kitchen counters around the world. It’s delicious and dependable and seedless. But it wasn’t always that way.
Bananas are the world’s fourth largest crop, and though they may be everywhere, they don’t grow on trees. Since their stalks aren’t made of wood, banana plants are technically herbs. The global food markets depend on these herbs for over 50 billion tons of fruit every year1.
In North America and Europe, the average individual eats about 12 kilograms of bananas each year. Many citizens in Africa and Asia eat that much every month. Most of the world’s bananas grown for export come from developing countries in Latin America, where crate after crate of green bananas are the lifeblood of the local economy.
It’s hard to overstate the importance of bananas in the developing world. More than 400 million people rely on them for 15 to 27 percent of their daily calories. In Central and East Africa alone, half of permanent cropland is dedicated to growing the fruit.
The story of the banana goes back ten thousand years. And it isn’t without bruises.
The banana you know and love is a variety called the Cavendish. This plump pouch of potassium is a descendant of the wild banana herb whose fruit is so small and full of seeds, it’s nearly inedible. But about ten-thousand years ago, somewhere in the forests of Southeast Asia, one of these wild plants dropped its fruit to the jungle floor, and inside its dense black seeds hid a happy genetic accident. Something was different about its DNA because this banana’s offspring grew tall, and healthy, and seedless. And that seedlessness made it easier to eat.
Our Stone Age predecessors stumbled upon this delicious mutant fruit, cut its stem, and replanted it. They had big plans for its future.
Eventually, traders brought edible banana varieties from Asia to Africa. By boat, the fruit began to spread across Africa, Europe and the Americas, playing an integral part in our diets throughout time.
Commercial banana production began in the early 1800s. Up until the 1950s, the world’s favorite banana wasn’t the Cavendish, but a sweeter, more delicate variety called the Gros Michel.
But the seedlessness that made this fruit so appetizing also made it susceptible to threats. Since farmers had to cut and replant stems instead of harvesting and planting seeds, they propagated the same genetic traits for decades. The result was row after row of cloned plants with a singular weakness.
In the 1940s, the Gros Michel’s vulnerability opened the door to a massive soil fungus infestation. A pathogen called Fusarium wilt, Tropical Race 1 (TR1) infected nearly every banana plantation around the world.
Starting in the roots, the pathogen starved the plant of nutrients and water, shriveling its bright green leaves and turning them black. Farmers were forced to burn the plant and move to new land. This decimation gave way to the modern Cavendish variety.
The Cavendish existed at the time in relative obscurity until banana farmers realized it had one key advantage over the Gros Michel—it’s resistant to TR1.
However, after six decades as the world’s leading banana, the Cavendish is now facing a serious threat of its own—TR4. Like a shadow, the latest version of the tropical race fungus, has followed the banana’s path from the tropics of Southeast Asia to Australia then Africa, and has now crossed the Atlantic to Colombia.
Similar to TR1, there is no fungicide to combat TR4, which puts modern exporters in Latin America, and smallholders in Asia and Africa at serious risk.
However, there is hope for those who rely on this crop for their livelihood and sustenance.
If the world wants a banana, we’ll have to turn to science. It will require the best in human ingenuity to redirect the course of this fruit once again. This may mean saying goodbye to the Cavendish and embracing new genetic techniques including gene modification.
To overcome Fusarium TR4 in Australia, scientists have inserted a gene from a wild banana into the Cavendish. In field trials, the resulting variety was 100 percent resistant after a three-year period of exposure to the disease, which is a good sign for farmers and consumers2.
Fusarium wilt threatens more than just our favorite snack. It represents one of the most important food security challenges worldwide. Bayer has partnered with the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture and the NGO Solidaridad, as well as with other influential organizations, producer associations, members of academia and the private sector to help save the banana from commercial extinction.
In addition to advanced plant breeding, Bayer and our partners are developing a training model for farmers to fight the spread of the disease, and fostering detection in regions where TR4 has spread. Also, together with partners, we are conducting trials with different crop protection products that are already used in other crops.
Farmers, researchers, and agriculture companies are working hard to fight TR4 and find solutions because, well, people love bananas. If the Cavendish does disappear, another variety will surely be there to take its place. At Bayer, we use science to solve challenges, and we believe that’s exactly what’s needed to save the world’s favorite accidental fruit. Because, that’s what a banana is, really.