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Yes, we have no banana? Maybe, if killer fungus spreads
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette


December 08, 2005

Is the banana about to go the way of the dodo?

Hardly. After all, more than 1,000 varieties of bananas grow around the world. But is the banana that we know and love, the one we eat almost exclusively in America, destined to disappear from grocery stores?

Possibly, say the experts, maybe within the next 10 to 20 years.

The protagonists in this drama are the Cavendish banana, the main variety eaten in the United States for the past 45 years, and Tropical Panama Disease Race 4, a virulent fungus that has wiped out the Cavendish in several Southeast Asian nations. The fungus, once it arrives, is likely to wreak havoc on Latin American plantations, where our bananas come from.

Tropical race 4 fungus has decimated banana plantations in Indonesia, Malaysia, Taiwan and northern Australia. It lives in the soil and infects banana plants from the roots up through the rest of the plant, drastically cutting yields.

There is no known fungicide that works against it.

The debate among experts revolves around if and when the fungus will reach the key export nations of Ecuador, Costa Rica, Honduras and Colombia.

"We've been saying it's going to get here for the past 20 years, and it's not here yet," said Adolfo Martinez, director general of the Honduran Agricultural Research Foundation, a major experimental banana breeding center. "But with globalization and so many ships moving around the world, the chances are better that it will get here sooner rather than later."

Richard Markham, director of the International Network for the Improvement of Banana and Plaintain, is even more convinced of the threat.

"A dirty boot with a few grams of soil from an infested site in Asia and 'planted' inadvertently in a Latin American plantation is all it would take to establish its presence," Markham said. "It's certainly spreading in Asia, so it's just a matter of time."

And once tropical race 4 arrives, "it is definitely a major threat," said Randy Ploetz, a banana disease expert from the University of Florida. "This thing, if it ever got over here, would be as bad or worse than the epidemic that infected the Gros Michel."

It turns out that we have been through this epidemic disease crisis once before.

The Gros Michel banana is the one that our grandparents ate and the variety that dominated the American market for most of the 20th century.

Banana aficionados say the Gros Michel, pronounced Grow Me-Shell, was superior to today's Cavendish. It was tastier, bigger and hardier.

In its heyday, the Gros Michel was cut down and shipped by the entire stalk, said John Soluri, a history professor at Carnegie Mellon University who studies the banana industry. When the stalks of bananas arrived here, they were moved through warehouses by hanging them on hooks attached to overhead rails.

But almost from the beginning of its glory days, the Gros Michel was susceptible to an earlier version of the Panama fungus, Soluri said, and, by the 1960s, growers switched to another variety.

Their salvation was the Cavendish, a South Asian banana which was resistant to that earlier version of Panama disease, was almost as sweet as the Gros Michel and ripened to the handsome yellow skin we now know.

But the Cavendish is not as sturdy as the Gros Michel. For that reason, growers had to start boxing bananas on the plantations before putting them on ships. The boxing increased costs during a time of stagnant banana sales.

That, Soluri said, is when the United Fruit Co., now Chiquita Brands International, launched its famous Miss Chiquita advertising campaign in 1963, featuring a brightly dressed character modeled after '40s movie star Carmen Miranda with her fruit-laden hat.

It was that campaign that led to brand names on bananas and paved the way for the now ubiquitous stickers that seem to adorn every piece of fruit in the grocery store.

It's not just the still-distant tropical race 4 fungus that threatens the Cavendish. It also is susceptible to another fungus known as Black Sigatoka, which is well established in Latin America.

That fungus can be defeated with chemicals, but it has become an extremely costly and environmentally damaging practice. Banana plantations in some areas have to be sprayed 50 times a year at a cost of nearly $500 an acre, which adds up to hundreds of millions of dollars in fungicide expenses every year.

To combat these issues, experimental farms such as the Honduran Agricultural Research Foundation are hard at work trying to develop banana varieties that are resistant to both diseases.

To date, Martinez said, he has created four varieties of "dessert bananas," the kind we eat in America. All of them are resistant to Black Sigatoka, and two are resistant to tropical race 4 as well.

But, he said, none of the four varieties has been accepted by the big banana producers as a potential replacement for the Cavendish, because taste tests done in the United States show consumers prefer the Cavendish's flavor and texture.

People in Cuba and Brazil, he said, prefer the flavor of one of his new hybrids, FHIA-18, which tastes a little more like an apple.

Martinez believes the banana companies ought to start growing some of the new hybrids and trying them out in the American market.

"I'm sure a small percentage of the public would prefer the smaller size of these bananas and some might prefer the taste," Martinez said.


Distributed to subscribers by Scripps Howard News Service,

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