Thursday, December 19, 2013

The End of the Banana As We Know It

The world's most popular fruit -- not just among Germans -- is in danger. A fungus that is deadly to Cavendish bananas — the common yellow variety that amounts to 80 percent of all banana exports — has shown up in Mozambique and Jordan. Until now the fungus, Fusarium oxysporum f. sp.cubense, only affected crops in Southeast Asia and Australia. (Specifically Taiwan, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and China.) With this cross-continental migration, researchers fear the fungus will soon reach Latin America, which grows the majority of the world's bananas.

This isn't the first time. A strain of the fungus in the 1950s was responsible for the demise of the precursor to the Cavendish, the Gros Michel banana -- the main type of banana imported into the U.S. from the 19th century through the 1950s. Gros Michel has been described as tastier than the much-loved Cavendish, but most present-day fruit lovers have never tasted its glorious flavor.

The Cavendish, which is rich in Vitamins B6 and C, has high levels of potassium, magnesium, and fibre; it is also cheap—about sixty cents a pound. In 2008, Americans ate 7.6 billion pounds of Cavendish bananas, virtually all of them imported from Latin America. Your supermarket likely sells many varieties of apples, but when you shop for bananas you usually have one option. The world’s banana plantations are a monoculture of Cavendishes.

Compounding the problem, Costa Rica declared its own banana emergency after mealybugs and scale insects began attacking banana plants, making them ineligible for export. Agriculture engineer Eric Bolanos told Sky News that these bugs are essentially banana vampires:

Basically, what it does is suck out the nutrients, or sap from the plant's organs, stems, leaves. It could reach the fruit, causing damage (like) dark stains.

A representative from the country's Phytosanitary Service said up to 20 percent of crops could be affected. But as for the fungus threat, scientists are working on options. A team of scientists -- led by James Dale of the Queensland University of Technology -- is working on genetically modified Cavendish. Another group, led by Juan Fernando Aguilar of the Fundación Hondureña de Investigación Agrícola, is attempting to naturally engineer a better banana.

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