Disease May Wipe Out Worlds Bananas But Heres How We Might only save them

Catastrophe is looming for the banana industry. A new strain has emerged of a soil-borne fungus known as Panama disease which are able to wipe out entire plantations and it is rapidly spreading around the world. Farmers in Australia, Latin America and across Asia and Africa all dread the worst.

The fungus is almost impossible to stop or eradicate. It are going through clay, so contamination can be as simple as infected grime travelling from one farm to another on the sole of a shoe, or as complex as clay particles blowing on the wind across long distances even across oceans, in theory.

Faced with huge losses resulting from a global industry, many have called for a new stres of disease-resistant superbanana. However, this would be just another temporary fixing. After all, the worlds most popular banana, the Cavendish, was itself the wonder fruit of its day, being introduced in the 1950 s after an earlier strain of Panama disease destroyed its predecessor.

Panama disease causes banana plants to wilt and succumb. Scot Nelson

The fungi simply adapted and fought back, though, until the Cavendish also became susceptible. Panama and other cancers will continue to do so until we seriously reform how we grow and marketplace bananas.

The banana industry is its own worst adversary. The huge farms where most exported bananas are grown are ideal for pests. These plantations are monocultures, which means they grow only bananas and nothing else. With very few shiftings between crops over the years, and lots of tropical sunshine, there is an abundant and year-round supplying of food for pests without any breaks, in time or space, to disrupt the furnish and lower the disease pressure.

Banana producers expend a one-third of their income on controlling these pests, according to a study I published in 2013. Chemicals to control microscopic but deadly worms are applied several times a year. Herbicides that control weeds are applied up to eight times a year, while bananas may be sprayed with fungicides from a plane more than 50 times a year in order to control Black Sigatoka, an airborne fungus.

Keep out, pests! Fairsing

And those containers that are wrapped around each individual banana bunch? Theyre lined with insecticides to serve as both a physical and chemical hurdle to bugs feeding on and injury the skins.

All of this amounts to approximately one litre of active ingredients for every 18.6 kg box of bananas that is exported to consumers in the global north. Its a huge, long-running problem for the industry and the new strain of Panama disease may simply be the nail in its coffin.

Or perhaps this is the wake-up call the export banana industry so desperately needs.

Searching For The Superbanana

Given the style the fungus spreads, containment and quarantine are barely long-term solutions. Some experts, especially those entrenched in the business of growing exportation bananas, argue that we need to breed or genetically modify a new type of banana that is resistant to the latest stres of Panama disease.

But this is harder than it sounds. Modern bananas the tasty yellow ones dont exist in nature; the latter are bred into existence around 10,000 years ago. They reproduction asexually, which means they dont have seeds and every banana is a genetic clone of the previous generation.

This lack of genetic difference constructs breeding a new banana particularly challenging. If one Cavendish is susceptible to a disease, all others will be too. When all bananas are clones, how do you create the genetic variation from which traits for better illnes resistance can be identified and fostered?

Identical bananas and only bananas for miles on end. underworld/ shutterstock

A new banana would also have to be tasty, durable enough to withstand long voyages without bruise, and bright yellow. Looks truly do trump pest-resistance. A new type of banana introduced during a previous Panama disease panic back in the 1920 s was rejected by consumers for running black on the outside, even when it was ripe and sweet inside.

Saving The Banana

Today, banana growers are in a fight for survival, endlessly applying newly-formulated fungicides in an effort to keep ahead of the diseases. But they are acutely aware that they are losing ground. While breeding a new banana staves off the current problem, history has already shown that this doesnt get to the root of the problem, which is the design of the production system.

We need to ditch the massive farms. Around the world, millions of small-scale farmers already grow bananas in a more organic and sustainable way. Alongside bananas are cacao, avocado, mango, corn, orange, lemon and more. A mixture of harvests generates more stable production systems which rely on fewer, if any, pesticides and produces diverse income sources, handing local people greater food sovereignty. Farms where bananas are mixed in with other harvests are also more resilient to climate change which is likely to hit banana-producing regions developing countries harder than most.

Yes, this would mean fewer bananas are grown. Sustainable agriculture simply cant keep abreast with the megafarms. But if we learned to ignore the odd blemished or undersized banana, then the actual sum sent to market need not fell at all.

The farmers themselves should be okay as theyll make up their income by making different harvests. Violating the dominance of the banana multinationals should also distribute wealth among more farmers and empower the regions where theyre grown. As a consumer, ask yourself this: isnt that a far better route to spend your money?

Angelina Sanderson Bellamy, Research Associate, Sustainable Places Research Institute, Cardiff University

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