Panama Disease is Driving Scientists ‘Bananas’

Banana2by Elizabeth Callow, Sustainable Plant Systems: Agronomy

Chances are, if you ate a fruit this morning, it was likely a banana. Bananas are one of the most readily available fruits in the word, boasting high vitamin and nutrient contents. Since the 1950’s, only one variety of banana has been readily available on the global market. This banana is commonly called the Cavendish banana, named after the family who first propagated it in the United Kingdom.

Tropical Race 4 of Panama disease has been known to exist for nearly 50 years. However, it hasn’t been until recently that this has posed a major problem for banana suppliers. Panama disease is a type of Fusarium wilt, and once it is present in a location it is nearly impossible to eradicate. Tropical Race 4 is related to Tropical Race 1, which completely wiped out the Gros Michel banana (the predecessor to the Cavendish banana) in the 1950s. Unless a resistant variety is found, banana production could be severely altered in the coming months and years.

These issues are largely a result of excluding diversity in the banana population. Bananas are propagated as clones, so there is virtually no genetic diversity in the banana population. This creation of a monoculture has been observed in several prominent historical events. Examples of such events include the Irish Potato Famine and Dutch Elm Disease. While the loss of the banana will not lead to a worldwide food shortage, it is imperative to learn from our mistakes and ensure that diversity is a top priority to maintain good health in our crops.

Links for Further Exploration
Our Favorite Banana May Be Doomed; Can New Varieties Replace It? NPR
Bye Bye Bananas – The Washington Post
The Most Popular Eating Banana Might Soon Go Extinct

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.

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