Atlantic Cities

Start Getting Used to the Idea of Eating Really Different Kinds of Bananas

Start Getting Used to the Idea of Eating Really Different Kinds of Bananas
AP Photo/Amy Sancetta

Walk into any North American supermarket, and the bananas you'll find in the produce section are almost certainly of the Cavendish variety, pictured above. Scientists have long feared that Tropical Race (TR) 4, a soil fungus that rots the Cavendish banana, will reach Latin America. That's where the vast majority of the multi-billion dollar banana export trade is based, and the source of nearly all the bananas consumed in the United States. And now, there’s more reason to worry.

TR-4 emerged in the 1990s and had been limited to Asian countries like China, Philippines, and Malaysia, as well as Australia. But in the past several months, the fungus has spread to Jordan and Mozambique.

Dan Koeppel, author of Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World, says TR-4 could reach Latin America in 10 years or tomorrow, since all it will take is a single clump of errant soil.

So assuming the fungus does reach Latin America, what will happen to the banana?

As it turns out, in the case of bananas at least, Battlestar Galactica was right: All of this has happened before, and it will all happen again. A previous strain of a similar fungus essentially wiped out the Gros Michel banana — the most common banana in the U.S. until the 1950s — leaving the banana industry to transition American consumers to the Cavendish banana. Koeppel says that process took about 10 years. Big banana companies like Chiquita and Dole had to adjust to the easily bruised Cavendish banana with a whole new industrial process: bagging, boxing, shipping in refrigerated containers to delay ripening. Today, Gros Michel bananas are still grown on a small scale, but are hard to find in the U.S. retail market.

So the Cavendish probably won’t become completely extinct. But finding yet another banana with mass-market appeal won’t be easy. Jessica Jones-Hughes, a representative of the fair trade banana company Oké USA, says big banana companies have been looking for a new variety for years without much success.

Left: red bananas (veesees/Flickr) Right: manzanos (gnexus/Flickr)

Current contenders include red bananas and manzanos. Koeppel says these varieties are a big contrast to the Cavendish in taste — they’re sweet and tart — and not as easy to eat. So if banana companies do ever try to introduce a replacement on a large scale, the first thing you’ll see is lots of marketing and education. 

But finding the next banana won't be the end of the story. As long as the major banana companies continue growing a single variety of banana (each with the same genetic makeup) across enormous plots of land, each new commercial variety stands another chance of getting wiped out. That’s why Koeppel thinks the real future of the banana is a more diverse banana, i.e. lab-made hybrids or GMOs.

A Costa Rican banana worker selects rejected bananas on the Select Fruits of the Tropics plantation in 2005. AP Photo/Kent Gilbert

There are also more immediate threats. Jones-Hughes says her company’s farm partners are more concerned about diseases like sigatoka and red rust. And just last week, Costa Rica issued a national banana emergency, following an outbreak of insects that spread across 24,000 hectares of plantations.

Bananas infected with red rust or the pests in Costa Rica are actually still edible, but their disease-induced blemishes are plenty reason for exporters to reject the crop. The insect attack in Costa Rica is expected to reduce up to 20 percent of exportable crop for the coming year. And according to Jones-Hughes, red rust quickly cuts a farm’s production volume by 50 percent.

“In an ideal world, people would start accepting less perfect bananas,” she says.    

Correction: An earlier version of this post stated that big banana companies began shipping Cavendish bananas in containers with ethylene to delay ripening - it should be refrigerated containers. Ethylene is a ripening agent.

Jenny Xie is a fellow at The Atlantic Cities. All posts »

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