In the mid-1900s, the most popular banana in the world — a sweet, creamy variety called Gros Michel, grown in Latin America — all but disappeared from the planet.
At the time, it was the only banana in the world that could be exported.
But a fungus, known as Panama Disease, which first appeared in Australia in the late 1800s, changed that after jumping continents.
The damage was so great and swift that, in a matter of only a few decades, the Gros Michel nearly became extinct.
Now, half a century later, a new strain of the disease is threatening the existence of the Cavendish — which replaced the Gros Michel and represents 99 per cent of the market — along with a number of varieties produced and eaten locally around the world.
And there is no known way to stop it, or even contain it.
That’s the troubling conclusion of a new study published in PLOS Pathogens, which confirmed that dying banana plants in various parts of the world are suffering from the same exact thing: Tropical Race 4, a more potent mutation of the much-feared Panama Disease.
Specifically, the researchers warn that the strain, which first began wrecking havoc in Southeast Asia some 50 years ago and has more recently spread to other parts of Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Australia, will eventually make its way to Latin America, where the vast majority of the world’s exported bananas are still grown.
At this point, they say, it’s not a question of whether Tropical Race 4 will infiltrate the mother ship of global banana production; it’s a matter of when.
The reason the original disease and its latest permutation are so threatening to bananas is largely a result of the way in which the fruit has been cultivated. While dozens of different varieties are grown around the world, often close to one another, commercially produced bananas are effectively clones of each other.
This helps companies like Dole and Chiquita control for consistency and produce massive amounts of bananas on the cheap without having to deal with imperfections — and is part of the reason why the fruit is so easy to find at supermarkets everywhere. But it also makes their bananas vulnerable to attacks from pests and disease.
The virtual extinction of the Gros Michel is an apt example, too. When the first strain of the Panama Disease appeared in Latin America, there was nothing to stop it.
“As whole plantations failed, United Fruit and others made the obvious choice: they picked up and moved somewhere else in Latin America,” Gwynn Guilford wrote last year.
“But the blight followed. After it wiped out plantations in Costa Rica, Panama disease followed United Fruit to Guatemala. And then to Nicaragua, then Colombia and then Ecuador. By 1960, 77 years after it had appeared, Panama disease had wiped the Gros Michel out of every export plantation on the face of the planet.”
The effect was felt all around the world. Certainly in the United States, where it inspired a song called “Yes, We Have No Bananas.”
The latest strain is likely to put the risks of monoculture on display once more. And while scientists might find or breed a better one in the meantime, we don’t have a formidable replacement that’s resistant to the new strain of Panama Disease.
Once it reaches Latin America, as it is expected to, it could be only a matter of decades before the most popular banana on the planet once again disappears.