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Australian Banana Groves Destroyed by Panama Wilt

Australian Banana Groves Destroyed by Panama Wilt

Sooo…I try to keep it light on Mondays so we can get through these long weeks, but one of our recent posts demands an immediate follow-up.  Remember how I was discussing the grim fate of ‘Gros Michel’ (‘Fat Michel’) the strain of bananas which were wiped out by Panama disease in the 50s?  Well, Panama disease has mutated and returned.  It’s baaaack…and this time it destroying the once immune ‘Cavendish’ plants which make up almost every banana in Europe, Africa, and the New World Photos are becoming more and more common of dying banana plants and desperate farmers burning their groves.  ‘Cavendish’ plants are clones and if one is susceptible, they all are. I really like bananas (when they are ripe) and the idea of doing without the radioactive potassium-rich fruit makes me sad. What are we going to do?

We have the technology?

We have the technology?

I guess a good market solution would be to make a transgenic banana that was resistant to the Panama disease, patent the critical gene fragment, and then sell sterile clones of the frankenfruit.  Since I like science and bananas (though not necessarily giant agribusinesses) so this is an acceptable solution to keep the yellow fruit on the table.

Industrial banana washing in Costa Rica

Industrial banana washing in Costa Rica

An alternate idea, however strikes me as far better.  We should send out teams of banana farmers and taste-testers to South East Asia (the first home of the banana) to collect purple, white, red, and gray bananas.  Different folks can start growing all sorts of new bananas around the world.  Undoubtedly some of them are more delicious than ‘Gros Michel” and I bet they are all more resistant to the blight.

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In fact just yesterday, regular Ferrebeekeeper commenter Beatrix reported on the delicious (albeit plain-looking) bananas of Nepal. She writes:

Here in Nepal we have all sorts of different bananas growing wild & in cultivation. They vary from short sweeties to starchy plantain sorts. Nepalis don’t have names for the different types of bananas. One of the tastiest varieties here is the ugliest – it is rather small (fingerlike), sporting a mottled greenish black peel with patches of gray lichen when ripe. The peel is surprisingly paper thin but the the flesh is a rich golden yellow & the taste is the most incredible, sweet custard-y banana flavor ever. I have never tasted this type of banana anywhere but Nepal. Most Asians prefer the starchy, bland bananas that most westerners would consider unripe – they think by the time a banana gets to the yellow mottled with brown stage it’s rotten.

Who here doesn’t want to try these delicious ugly bananas?  I am ready to pack up and head off to Nepal just to try them!  What we have is a marketing problem.  If these charlatans can sell people on stuff like organic food and bottled water, why can’t they sell delicious (but ugly) finger-length bananas?  The second coming of Panama disease needn’t spell the end of bananas (although we may lose the familiar bright yellow “Cavendish”)—perhaps this could be the beginning of a glorious new era of multicolor bananas of all sizes and flavors!

Or we could use technology and modern farm techniques to make some crazy bananas!

Or we could use technology and modern farm techniques to make some crazy bananas!

Gros Michel Bananas

Gros Michel Bananas

A half a century ago, bananas were more delicious. They were creamier with a more delectable tropical fruit taste. When they ripened, they stayed ripe longer instead of swiftly turning to black slime. Since they lasted on the shelf when ripe it was possible to sell them ripe–as opposed to today’s bananas which must be purchased all green and hard and nasty. I realize that this description makes it sound like I have fallen prey to golden age syndrome—wherein a bygone time becomes a misremembered quasi-mythical standard against which today is unfavorably compared (a well-known problem for certain political parties and demographics)—yet I am not embellishing. The bananas of yore were better because they were different. If you recall the earlier banana post, you will remember that there are numerous strange and magnificent varieties of bananas in Southeast Asia—delicious miniature bananas, red bananas, purple bananas…all sorts of fruit unknown to us. For long ages, across many lives of men, farmers hybridized wild species of bananas and selectively bred the different strains into different varieties called cultivars. The most delicious and salable cultivar was “Gros Michel” (Fat Michael) which I described above. “Gros Michel” was so ideal for farming (and so tasty) that it became pretty much the only banana cultivated. Vast plantations around the world produced only “Gros Michel.” It grew on large 7 meter tall trees (21 feet) which produced abundantly.

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I even have a family story of how my paternal grandparents got together during World War II. He finally expressed his interest in her by giving her a banana—which were rare and precious during the war. Grandma was suitably impressed and made a somewhat ribald poetic metaphor concerning the banana’s shape–which left grandpa with no doubts about her feelings…which is to say I am considerably in debt to “Gros Michel”, despite the fact that I have never tasted one.

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So what happened to Gros Michel? Is there by chance a terrifying horror story which provides us with a useful moral lesson about our tastes, our habits, and the fragile nature of the foundations of civilization?

Well, as it happens there is such a story!

Banana Tree with Panama Disease

Banana Tree with Panama Disease

In the 1950s, a fungus Fusarium oxysporum attacked the Gros Michel bananas. It was known as “Panama Disease” and it wiped out entire plantations of fruit in Africa and South America. The blight spread with horrible speed through the great monoculture farms. All Gros Michel bananas were clones, so the contagion spread unchecked. There were years where there were almost no bananas in Europe, Africa, and the Americas: whole empires turned to ashes and rot. To save their livelihood banana growers burned their groves and moved to a new dwarf banana “the Cavendish” which was unsatisfying—but which resisted the terrible killing fungus. Gros Michel disappeared from the commercial world…although there are tantalizing rumors that it exists still in the ancestral homeland of bananas—Southeast Asia. It has even been said that Chinese billionaires import luxurious Gros Michel fruits and have lavish banana parties where they eat magnificent tasting bananas and laugh at the feeble little green bananas of the west.

dsc_1801banana_shopWhatever the truth of these tales, what is certain is that the banana growers outside of Asia immediately fell back into their bad habit of monoculture. The Cavendish is just as vulnerable to blight as its predecessor. Indeed many monoculture crops (crops like wheat, rice, and potatoes) are potentially vulnerable to unexpected disease because of the perils of overreliance on certain favorable strains. It is a somewhat sobering thought for people who eat!

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