Bananapocalypse: It's Not the End of Bananas, Just the End as We Know Them

Is the banana apocalypse coming?
Is the banana apocalypse coming?
Flickr Creative Commons by Branko Collins

The world's favorite fruit is dying a slow, miserable death. A new study confirms that the bananas you know and love are going extinct.

Since the 1960s, a new strain of the fungus known as Panama disease (Fusarium oxysporum f.sp. cubenseor Foc), this one called Tropical Race 4, has been killing trees. Originating in Indonesia, it has spread across East and Southeast Asia. In 2013, it jumped across oceans to South Asia, the Middle East, Australia, and Africa. Researchers say it's time to worry about another cross-continent leap to Latin America, where more than three-fifths of the world's exported bananas are grown. Author Gwynn Guilford at Quatz says the disease has devastating consequences: "Taiwan... now exports around 2 percent of what it did in the late 1960s, when Tropical Race 4 was first discovered there."

The soil-borne fungus attacks the plant at its roots and the water-conducting tissue, causing it to wilt into a mushy, odiferous, rotten mess. The fungus can sit dormant in the ground for decades and spreads through infected plant material, contaminated tools (i.e. machetes), and even infected footwear. 

This is not the first time this has happened, though. Those long, curvy Cavendish bananas (a cultivar of the Grand Nain, in case you were wondering) that are found on supermarket shelves across the world were not the first banana of choice for global consumers. Back in the 1800s, the Gros Michel was the phallic fruit of the day — there's a rumor that artificial banana flavor was based on that particular cultivar — but in the 1900s, a strain of Panama disease, TR-4's older sibling Race 1, decimated the plant and the Central American agriculture industry. By the 1960s, the variety was virtually extinct, spare a few small farms in different parts of the world.

But instead of learning from the mistake of farming one banana exclusively, farmers simply selected the Cavendish for its resistance to the strain of disease that killed the Gros Martin and went back to monoculture business as usual.

"It doesn't surprise me much," says Jason 'Farmer Jay' McCobb. "When you do big monocultures like that you're susceptible to problems."

While Americans aren't the highest average consumers of bananas in the world (that award goes to Ugandans), we do eat far more bananas than any other fruit, more than apples and oranges combined. Right up there with grapes, bananas are one of the top two fruit crops on the planet.

So is this an end to your banana pudding as you know it? Kind of. You're probably going to have to get over your varietism (it's like racism for types of plants) when it comes to the fruit: The Cavendish will die out.

Panama disease already exists in Florida and has for the past 25 years, says Dr. Jonathan Crane, professor of horticulture and tropical fruit specialist for the University of Florida. The disease limits the varieties that can be grown in the state, which has about 500 to 600 commercial acres of bananas. The Sunshine State, Puerto Rico, and Hawaii are the only U.S. territories to grow bananas on an industrial scale. Still, our yield is peanuts compared to the 100 million fruits produced annually on farms in Central America and Asia. 

Since there's no way to fight it, Crane and his colleagues recommend varieties that are resistant to Panama disease. Home gardeners interested in purchasing one can pick up a tree at garden centers across South Florida. They do exist, but as banana cultivars vary wildly in appearance and flavor, these strains are rarely grown commercially.

"People don't know the variety and they might not like the flavor," says Crane. "The only way to get a comparable banana [to the Cavendish] would be to develop it through breeding."

Crane has yet to hear of a comparable substitute.

While there are plenty of specialty bananas grown in the U.S., Crane says, these varieties are mainly marketed to ethnic groups. The clue nam wah banana (also known as the Thai banana) is generally advertised to Asians. The apple banana (or manzana) is targeted to individuals from the Caribbean and Latin America. (Both, unfortunately, are susceptible to Panama disease.) Americans just aren't as savvy when it comes to bananas and other tropical fruit as we are to European produce, like say, apples or pears. 

The banana powerhouses in Central America have worked out detailed and complicated systems for planting, harvesting, storing, and shipping Cavendish crops to consumers in the U.S. and abroad. Retooling the system would be a time-consuming and expensive process. The industry is reluctant to make the switch, but change is inevitable, says Crane.

"When the Cavendish was identified as disease-resistant, the industry had to completely change production with new ways to ship and package it. It's complicated."

So even though the Cavendish is on its way out, that doesn't mean you're going to have to live without banana pudding. It's just not going to taste exactly the same.

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