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Flash in the Pan

Yes, we'll have no bananas



Here I am, writing about food while the bombs and bullets continue to fly. Can you imagine trying to grow a garden in a war zone? I take a minute to acknowledge how fortunate I am to go about my simple business in peace.

Planting spinach and lemon cucumbers, maybe too early, working around some pre-planted parsley and onions coming up from last year. Meanwhile, my garlic is six inches tall and rising. OK, maybe it’s only four inches tall and rising. See how I am? Typical. The typical male mistakes four inches for ten.

Phallic references aside, I have some limp news to report about the fate of the world’s favorite fruit. The banana is teetering on the edge of extinction. According to a recent article in New Scientist, in ten year’s time the most popular product on the world’s supermarket shelves may be but a sweet memory.

The edible banana contains no seeds, while its beautifully flowered wild cousin, Musa acuminata, contains a mass of big hard seeds that render it virtually inedible. But from time to time, a wild banana spawns a mutant offspring, with tiny sterile seeds—or none at all. Our hunter/gatherer ancestors discovered some of these mutants and propagated them through simple cuttings. Without seeds, these plants were unable to reproduce sexually, and all of their propogated offspring over the last 10,000 years contain the exact same genetic material. This means zero genetic diversity. The immutable form of the banana’s genetic material makes it ripe for attack by new diseases. Therein lies the problem.

The most common banana today is the Cavendish, “discovered” by the British in the 19th century in southern China. The Cavendish replaced the Gros Michel as top banana in the 1950s, despite the fact that the Gros Michel was richer and sweeter than the Cavendish. But the Gros Michel was vulnerable to a soil fungus known as Panama Disease. For a while, banana growers played a running game, moving their plantations to new, “clean” ground, until they ran out of room to run. Enter the Cavendish. While not as tasty, the Cavendish is naturally resistant to Panama Disease.

But now there are new diseases out there, such as Black Sigatoka, to which the Cavendish is not resistant. Conventional banana growers keep the disease at bay with chemicals. Forty applications of fungicide per year is typical—and one-fifth of male African banana workers are sterile, allegedly due to exposure. “As soon as you bring in a new fungicide, they develop resistance” says Emile Frison, the head of a worldwide network of banana researchers. “One thing we can be sure of is that the Sigatoka won’t lose in this battle.” Organic growers, many of whom grow Cavendish as well, may be the first to succumb. And in these global days of rapid transit from everywhere to everywhere, new diseases can get around like never before. Meanwhile, each variety of modern banana—yellow, green, red, sweet, starchy, big, and small—is stuck with a genetic tool chest that is 10,000 years out of date, making them sitting ducks for new soil fungi and other diseases that can evolve literally overnight. Expert consensus gives the banana as we know it about ten years.

This is bad news for those of us who like to eat bananas. This is catastrophic news for the half-billion African and Asian subsistence farmers, to whom bananas are more than just a treat. In the East African Highland, the word matooke means both “banana” and “food.” If the banana goes under, parts of Africa and Asia could face famines of epic proportions.

In a breeding facility in Honduras, workers painstakingly hand-pollinate 10 hectares of Cavendish bananas with pollen from Asian wild strains. About one in 10,000 plants will produce a viable seed, which will be grown and tested for resistance to Panama and Black Sigatoka disease. This process has yielded a banana strain that doesn’t taste so good, but for the moment is resistant to known diseases. It is reason to hope.

Meanwhile, a team of gene jockeys is busily sequencing the banana genome in hopes of finding a way to engineer disease resistance. But the big companies, like Dole and Chiquita, are reluctant to get involved with GMOs because of worldwide resistance to the concept.

I asked Paul Rosen, produce manager at the Good Food Store, if he would carry GMO bananas were they his only option. “That’s a complete moral quandary, Chef Boy Ari,” he admitted. “We haven’t had to cross that bridge yet. I’m keeping my fingers crossed we don’t have to. The banana is such a produce staple…you can run a produce department without a papaya, but without bananas, we would run the risk of customers going somewhere else that carries them.”

Luckily, Chef Boy Ari has the answer: stalk the wild bananas. Just like our ancestors did, we can search the jungle for the latest in disease-resistant, seedless, tasty, and naturally occurring mutant bananas. Why not? It worked 10,000 years ago. The well has not run dry.

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