by Abigail Newburger, Jewish Studies
People love bananas. Bananas rank fourth as a global staple food. The top three are wheat, rice, and corn.
Americans eat bananas more than any other fruit. They are now under attack. However, this is not the first time that bananas have been threatened.
Until the mid-twentieth century, the most widely consumed banana species was Gros Michel, or “Big Mike.” This species was wiped out by a fungus known as Fusarium Wilt or Panama Disease. The soil borne pathogen infected the roots and vascular system of the crop. The disease spread easily in soil, water and infected plants. Worse yet, the disease stayed in the soil for decades. This caused huge economic problems for banana producers and distributors.
The solution to the near extinction of Big Mike was finding a species resistant to this disease. While there are hundreds of species of bananas, Cavendish was found to be resistant to Panama Disease which led to its increased production solving the world’s banana deficit. Today it faces its own threat.
Today’s threat to America’s favorite fruit is a more potent version of the Panama Disease known as Tropical Race 4 (TR4). TR4 has already caused, “…thousands of hectares of Cavendish plantations [to be] wiped out in China, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines.”
The reason these bananas are being threatened by disease so easily is because commercially produced bananas are all the same. They are effectively clones of each other. Removing variety makes crops more vulnerable to disease.
With the Cavendish being a species that is cloned, disease could not only wipe out the species, it could easily become a threat to global food security.
Scientists have been investigating methods to help make Cavendish bananas resistant to these diseases. One method being researched is genetic modifications. This means DNA from other banana species resistant to the diseases could be implanted into Cavendish bananas to protect them from the diseases.
Agricultural technology has improved greatly. The fungal genomes have been sequenced. This allows scientists to understand the evolution of this virulence. Hopefully an intervention can be developed. This is important not only to save the Cavendish but to protect the environment from large amounts of fungicides.
Hopefully people will not be singing “Yes, we have no bananas” anytime soon.
Abigail Newburger is a fifth-year undergraduate student at The Ohio State University. Originally from Potomac, Maryland she is hoping to move back to the Greater Washington D.C. area to work in the nonprofit sector.
Drenth, A., Kema, G., & Stergiopoulos, I. (2016, October 23). With the familiar Cavendish banana in danger, can science help it survive? Retrieved June 18, 2017, from http://theconversation.com/with-the-familiar-cavendish-banana-in-danger-can-science-help-it-survive-64206.
This blog post was an assignment for Societal Issues: Pesticides, Alternatives and the Environment (PLNTPTH 4597). The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the class, Department of Plant Pathology or the instructor.