Fungal fears once again force us to breed a better banana
Despite only having one variety available at most supermarkets, banana management has been a large endeavor for the last 10,000 years, give or take. The original berries from New Guinea don’t bear a lot of resemblance to the Cavendish bananas most of us are used to thanks to intervention from human breeding efforts, having dropped most of their dense seeds for asexual, meaty fruit. While most people are satisfied with the potassium-rich fruit we have available, they might not stay on store shelves for long unless human farming finds a breakthrough to save them from fungi spreading across the world.
Dearth of diversity
While domestication of the banana made it much more appealing to humans, it has also limited their genetic diversity. By breeding the seeds out of the fruit, we’ve more or less eliminated reshuffling of genes that makes each plant a little different from each of its kin. These small differences can sometimes make one plant more resistant to certain pathogens, like the Tropical Race 4 fungus (Fusarium oxysporum). The Cavendish bananas people like to eat all bear the same weakness to this fungus, which is also proving to be unphased by our fungicides or efforts to slow its transmission from continent to continent. As such, some scientists are predicting that the Cavendish variety of bananas will likely go extinct in the near future, much like the Gros Michel bananas that dominated marketplaces until their demise in the 1950s.
Candidates to replace Cavendish
Fortunately, human domestication hasn’t eliminated all varieties of bananas, even if we’ve been heavily relying on Cavendish as our current favorite. There are farms, and special research facilities in Puerto Rico, that actively grow and preserve other kinds of bananas, from plantains to tangy Manzanos to inedible wild bananas. Some can be purchased in local markets, while others are being maintained for research and posterity. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is sending different breeds to agricultural research centers in Europe to expose them to fungi and hopefully discover a few varieties that are naturally more resistant to such pathogens.
With less than 20 different banana plants having proven fungi-proof so far, it’s quite possible that the strongest fruit won’t taste like our familiar Cavendish. We might just have to adjust our concept of what a good banana tastes like, but further breeding might come into play again. New hybrid breeds would likely be developed to match resilience with taste and durability, giving us a decent replacement for what’s in stores today. Better yet, a few varieties might be developed, giving us a bit more choice in the produce market, even if our demand for seedless fruit forces them into a genetic cul-de-sac again.
Source: Our Favorite Banana May Be Doomed; Can New Varieties Replace It? by Dan Charles, The Salt