Not your mother's bananas
How do we know bananas are going extinct? Because it's happened before.
The Cavendish banana looks set to join the Gros Michel variety on the list of commercially extinct banana species. You may never have heard about Gros Michel, fondly known as “Big Mike”, but your grandparents may have. Up until the 1960s, Big Mike was the most popular banana in the United States, before it was very nearly wiped out by a fungal disease. Sound familiar?
With its name literally translating to “Fat Michael”, the Gros Michel banana is slightly thicker, straighter and sweeter than the Cavendish. Its thick skin made it less prone to bruising during shipping, making it the perfect commercial banana.
“Big Mike was the most popular banana in the United States, before it was very nearly wiped out by a fungal disease.”
Big Mike was being cultivated on the Caribbean coast of Central America as early as 1890. However, within years, crops were being lost in Costa Rica and Panama as a result of a fungal disease, known as Panama Disease, Fusarium wilt or Race 1. The disease quickly spread across Central America and the Caribbean. However, the export industry managed to continue cultivating Gros Michel due to the conversion of huge expanses forest into agricultural land. But there is no escaping Panama disease. It eventually caught up with the industry. Production costs skyrocketed and by the 1960s the crop was no longer viable for commercial export. Gros Michel was replaced by the more disease resistant Cavendish banana, the variety we eat today.
Worryingly, a new stronger strain of the disease, known as Tropical Race 4 (TR4), is threatening to decimate the Cavendish banana. It has already spread through East and Southeast Asia, and is now present in the Middle East, Africa and Australia and could soon spread into Central America. There is no easy way to combat this disease and deforestation to create new areas for cultivation is not a sustainable option. The Cavendish is doomed, so we need to create new systems in which alternative banana varieties can grow. If we can do this without destroying our precious remaining tropical forest, and instead in harmony with surrounding biodiversity, shouldn’t we give it a go?
We believe that agroforestry systems provide the solutions for both the long-term production of bananas and the survival of rainforests. The systems have the potential to be scaled up, as monoculture land can be reconverted to forests which not only provide food and employment for humans, but also conserve biodiversity and provide key ecosystem services which we rely on. With your help, we can set the world on a path towards change. Together, we can open the eyes of everyday banana consumers to the great future that bananas could have.
by Nick Dunn
Soluri, J. 2002. Accounting for Taste: Export Bananas, Mass Markets, and Panama Disease. Environmental History 7(3):386-404.