Since the 1960s, a new strain of the fungus known as Panama disease (Fusarium
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
"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
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
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
The banana powerhouses in Central America have worked out detailed and complicated systems for planting, harvesting,
"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.