The banana is in a precarious position. A deadly fungus that has been decimating plantations in Asia for decades was recently detected in South America, leading Colombia to declare a state of emergency. The world’s fourth-largest banana exporter – following Ecuador, Costa Rica and Guatemala – has been forced to destroy roughly 168 hectares of contaminated crops, The Independent reports.
Initially identified in Taiwan in the early 1990s, Fusarium wilt – a.k.a. Panama disease – type 4 (TR4) has since spread to Africa, Asia, Australia, the Middle East and now, critically, the Americas. A soil-borne fungus, the lethal disease attacks the roots first, killing the xylem vessels, which transport water and nutrients to the rest of the plant. While TR4 doesn’t pose a risk to human health, it ultimately prevents the growth of fruit.
Deyanira Barrero León, general manager of the Instituto Colombiano Agropecuario (ICA; the Colombian agricultural institute), tweeted that the government had enlisted the help of police and military forces to combat the disease’s spread, as well as a team of international experts. Agriculture officials, backed up by the air force, are watching crops 24 hours a day to ensure they aren’t moved, according to The Independent . “We are responding with everything we’ve got,” said Barrero León.
Thus far, TR4 has proved impervious to fungicides or fumigants used to treat the soil. “As far as I know, ICA and the farms are doing a good job in terms of containment, but eradication is almost impossible,” Fernando García-Bastidas, a Colombian phytopathologist who was involved in testing, told National Geographic .
Overwhelmingly, the fruit we identify as a banana is of the Cavendish variety. Sturdy and thus easily transported, it replaced the Gros Michel as the export banana of choice after its creamy, more complex tasting precursor was obliterated by Panama disease in the 1950s. Although there are thought to be more than 1,000 varieties of banana growing in the tropics — including the Blue Java, with its sky-tinted skin and flesh the consistency of ice cream, and the Burro, with its squared sides and lemon-scented pulp — in practice, for those of us living in temperate regions, there’s only one.
The Cavendish represents just 47 per cent of global production but nearly the entirety of exported bananas. If the fruit is a staple of your shopping cart in Canada, it’s a near certainty you rely on a steady supply of Cavendish. As Bee Wilson writes in The Way We Eat Now (Basic Books, 2019), “Bananas are the monoculture of monocultures.” With very little genetic diversity, they’re especially susceptible to pests and diseases, as evidenced by the spread of TR4 and the risk it poses to the Cavendish’s very survival.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019