Ripe for Debate

March 20, 2020 — The Extinction Issue

Ripe for Debate

The Banana Industry’s Monoculture Cautionary Tale

Words by Julie Kunen
Illustration by Cesar Diaz

This story can also be found in The Winter Issue of Life & Thyme Post, our limited edition printed newspaper for Life & Thyme members.

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We may be as American as apple pie, but it is more appropriate to consider the banana as our national fruit. Although every banana is imported from overseas, unlike our locally grown apples, we eat more bananas each year than any other fruit—about twenty-eight pounds per person. 

Yet for as many bananas as we consume, only one option is offered to us—the Cavendish. It’s the banana equivalent of eating only Red Delicious apples. Whether produced in vast plantations in Ecuador, Mozambique or the Philippines, ninety-nine percent of all the bananas exported around the world are identical Cavendish clones. Globally, the ultra-mechanized logistics chain for exporting bananas is uniquely tailored not only to grow but also to pack, ship and market this single variety. Its nutritional and pharmaceutical needs, ripening time, propensity to bruise, the box it is shipped in, the number of days it spends in transport, and the size of the hands (bunches) found on the shelf all drive the industry. 

The Cavendish was not chosen for this starring role because of its superior taste, texture or skin. It was chosen because it was resistant to a fungal disease, colloquially called Panama Disease (fusarium wilt is known as Panama Disease because it was first identified in Panama and also Costa Rica in the late 1800s), that wiped out its predecessor (the Gros Michel) on the world market. It’s widely believed that the Cavendish has both inferior taste and texture, characteristics not helped by the fact that they are picked green and ripened by doses of ethylene so each arrives on the supermarket shelf as the uniformly sized, bright yellow crescent found in a bunch with about six of its siblings. 

The banana is native to southeast Asia and was likely domesticated around ten thousand years ago. Over the centuries of selection by farmers, the cultivated banana plant has become seedless and therefore sterile, meaning it must be propagated vegetatively through the growth of suckers that appear off the main stem of the plant. This means that bananas are clones—each daughter plant is identical to the mother plant. With the exception of minor mutations that arise naturally, each banana in the field is genetically identical to every other banana in the field. 

How did we get to the point where ninety-nine percent of all the bananas grown for export—over nineteen million tons of bananas—are the same variety out of 1,600 possible varieties?

Today, bananas grow throughout the tropics and subtropics across the globe from Malaysia to Mozambique, India to Ecuador. Its ability to yield fruit all year long is what makes it so important for food security and income. In fact, eighty-seven percent of all bananas grown today are grown by smallholders for local consumption, not export. According to the international agricultural research network known as the CGIAR, bananas supply one quarter of the carbohydrates consumed by seventy million people in Africa alone and provide important vitamins and minerals in the diet of these and millions more. 

In the early 1900s, the industry—controlled by United Fruit and to a lesser extent Standard Fruit (today’s Chiquita and Dole)—grew a banana variety called the Gros Michel on their plantations across Latin America and the Caribbean. The entire industry was adapted to work with the Gros Michel banana, a creamy and flavorful variety that was still robust enough to withstand international shipping. Then, Panama Disease was discovered in Central America and began to wipe out plantations. According to environmental historian John Soluri of Carnegie Mellon University, the companies responded by abandoning infected plantations across Central America and the Caribbean and opening up new ones in virgin forest, leaving behind ghost towns and thousands of suddenly unemployed workers. Their behavior was responsible for much of the deforestation and social unrest in Central America in the first half of the twentieth century. 

At last, the companies were forced to concede that the Gros Michel banana was no longer commercially viable. It was reluctantly replaced with a variety from Brazil. It looked similar to Gros Michel, so the average consumer probably didn’t notice the difference. While inferior in taste, texture and transportability, Cavendish’s most valuable quality was that it was totally resistant to the strain of Panama Disease that was decimating Gros Michel. The companies finally switched wholesale to Cavendish, and by 1965 Gros Michel bananas were no longer found on supermarket shelves. 

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Today, however, the Cavendish is threatened by a more virulent version (called Tropical Race 4, or TR4) of the fusarium wilt that destroyed an earlier generation of banana plantations. This disease is spreading across the globe. Since 1990, researchers have known about it and have attempted to slow it through biosafety measures like farm quarantines and destruction of diseased plants, all in the hopes that Latin America—the world’s most important center of export banana production, exporting thirteen million tons of Cavendish bananas per year—would be spared. 

Despite these efforts and because we live in a hyper-globalized world, last October the presence of fusarium wilt was confirmed on a plantation in Colombia. Unless something changes, our breakfast cereal will soon be bereft of its fruit partner. Our banana split will be just a forlorn dish of ice cream. Our banana bread, just bread. 

As upsetting as this thought is, for those of us in the U.S. or Europe, the loss of the banana would mean only the loss of a beloved snack. But for millions of people in Africa, Asia and Latin America, it would mean the loss of basic food security and livelihood. Whether the plátanos of Latin American and Caribbean cuisines, the matoke (cooking bananas) of highland African nations like Uganda, or the alloco (plantain) of Cote D’Ivoire in West Africa, they are critical to cuisine and cultural identity. In Uganda, the world’s second largest banana-producing country, the average banana farm is only about half a hectare and a banana farmer will traditionally grow eight to fifteen different cooking and sweet banana varieties on it. Matoke is so central to identity that the different varieties are used in celebrations that mark critical moments in the cycle of life. One is planted at the start of a married couple’s life together, one is served at funerals, another is used to celebrate the birth of a boy, and yet another to mark the birth of a girl. Some even translate the word matoke to mean, simply, “food.”

TR4 has likely been in existence for thousands of years, but only when we became dependent on agricultural monocultures did we notice it. Dr. Randy Ploetz, a plant pathologist, fusarium expert, and professor emeritus of the University of Florida who is credited with first identifying TR4, says, “it’s the same story all over again.” Now that fusarium is in Colombia, the experts agree it will likely spread throughout Latin America, home to the banana export industry and a huge agricultural workforce. Ploetz continues, “it’s only a question of how long it will take.” 

Unlike in the previous century, there is no realistic possibility of simply abandoning infected plantations and turning to virgin land to carve out new ones. Such practices are no longer politically or ecologically feasible. 

It’s widely believed that the Cavendish has both inferior taste and texture, characteristics not helped by the fact that they are picked green and ripened by doses of ethylene so each arrives on the supermarket shelf as the uniformly sized, bright yellow crescent found in a bunch with about six of its siblings.

Dr. Gert Kema, chair of the department of tropical phytopathology at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, explains that it is not bananas that are particularly vulnerable to fusarium, but rather the specific ecology and agricultural practices surrounding banana cultivation. Bananas are vulnerable because each plant is a clone of the next, and plantations are seas of genetically identical plants across thousands of hectares. 

“Picture a big Cavendish ocean,” says plant pathologist and banana expert Dr. Miguel Dita. Dita is based in Cali, Colombia, where he traveled immediately after TR4 was found on a plantation (a finding confirmed by Kema’s lab). Bananas in monoculture are essentially an unbroken reservoir of plants vulnerable to fusarium, without any of the potential natural resistance to disease that comes from genetic diversity. Once one plant is infected, all the plants will become sick since there is no natural barrier to the spread of the disease. 

Researchers believe there is a small window of time, perhaps a decade, to come up with solutions that will prevent a repeat of the history that extirpated the Gros Michel. 

Rigorous phytosanitary laws to prevent the entry of diseased plant stocks and farm management to slow the spread of disease may help, but will not stop fusarium, and plantations across Asia and Australia have already been destroyed. There are no TR4 resistant varieties yet known, and it is neither easy nor quick to develop new banana varieties because cultivated bananas cannot be easily crossed and propagation through cloning is complex. 

Kema explains, “the research community is small and funding is limited.” This is in part because unlike a commodity such as wheat, bananas are not critical to wealthy countries like the U.S. or England and therefore do not benefit from the same kinds of investments. 

There has been modest success in identifying naturally more resistant varieties of Cavendish in Taiwan and the Philippines. This may be the best option for now, but these varieties still ultimately get sick. Planting them might buy time for researchers to discover, breed or engineer another solution. Some feel the real hope lies in genetic modification and point to Dr. James Dale’s work developing a transgenic, TR4 resistant Cavendish banana in Australia.

Dale, of Queensland University of Technology, identified two genes in a wild variety of banana from southeast Asia thought to be responsible for conveying natural resistance to TR4 and then modified the Cavendish genome to include one of the two genes. If continued trials are successful, Dale may soon produce a commercial version of genetically modified Cavendish that is resistant to TR4.

But many countries, especially in Europe, prohibit the sale of GMO crops, and consumers in those and other countries object to foods that have been genetically engineered. Dale sees the GMO approach not as the end game but as “a safety net” if the world wants to keep growing bananas. He is now focused on another approach that involves gene editing using a technology known as CRISPR. The outcome of this research might be a version of the banana that is more acceptable, since the banana’s own genome is edited to promote disease resistance rather than introducing foreign genes into the fruit.

As Soluri points out, the real question is, “why researchers think their GMO banana won’t just be susceptible to another pathogen that nobody right now is paying much attention to.” The problem seems to be a problem of monocultures, not a problem of Cavendish specifically, or even of bananas per se. Even if we could breed or engineer a banana variety that is resistant to TR4, a new version of fusarium will probably appear in the future, just as TR4 itself appeared decades after the problem of Panama Disease appeared to be solved. 

Dr. Emile Frison, former Director of the International Network for the Improvement of Banana and Plantain and the CGIAR center Bioversity International, believes the problem faced first by Gros Michel and now Cavendish is inherent to monocultures. He points out that even though non-Cavendish varieties—including many that people in the developing world depend on for food security—are also susceptible to TR4, fusarium wilt is much less devastating on smallholder farms. Not because the plants themselves are more resistant, but because of the agricultural practices involved. In contrast, Frison believes a major reason for the disease susceptibility of industrial plantations is the poor condition of the underlying soil, which has been doused with agrochemicals. 

“TR4 also infects many other varieties such as those used on local markets,” adds Dita. But smallholder farmers typically use many fewer agrochemicals than industrial plantations, which means their soil microbiome—full of beneficial microbes, a sort of healthy soil “gut”—will be healthier. Organic plantations might therefore be less susceptible to fusarium, and data from Taiwan indicates organic plantations have suffered less damage from fusarium than conventional plantations. But organic alone is not the solution, as Dita points out that the outbreak of fusarium in Colombia was on an organic plantation. 

Perhaps the solution is not just replacing one variety with another and hoping for the best. If agrobiodiverse systems such as those of smallholder farmers the world over produce food crops that taste better, have higher levels of antioxidants, are grown in fields that are more resistant to disease, and in soils that are healthier, perhaps it is the industrial agricultural system, not the banana, that needs to change. 

When asked if the big banana companies are becoming more open to considering diversity as part of the solution to their fusarium problem, Frison is skeptical. “Their reaction has been to see if they can engineer a variety that is resistant to fusarium wilt,” he tells me. “There is no indication that diversification is on their agenda.” 

Two emerging pressures may change that mentality. The first is climate change. “Whether it’s bananas or other crops, we have to move toward diversified agroecological systems for a whole variety of reasons. One is that agriculture is responsible for twenty percent of greenhouse gas emissions, and if you look at the whole food system, it’s one third” of total emissions, says Frison. The Paris Climate Agreement calls for a transition to agricultural practices that promote soil carbon sequestration and minimize the emissions of nitrous oxide from nitrogen-based fertilizers. In order to prevent the worst climate impacts, Frison believes food producers may have no choice but to adopt agroecological practices. 

The second is consumer demand for diversity, which has an important role to play in incentivizing better quality and more environmentally conscious foods. We need to get past what Ploetz calls the consumer addiction to Cavendish. It was Ploetz who compared Cavendish to the Red Delicious apple. He suggests that part of the solution is for consumers to “get away from this idea that Cavendish is the only banana that’s out there.” 

Just as consumers now expect to find many more apple cultivars than just a Red Delicious on the shelf, we can demand more interesting, delicious and nutritious bananas that are more resilient and are good for planetary health. As Frison observes, “that’s the beauty of diversity in itself.”

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