Scientists from around the world are rushing to find the replacement for the Cavendish Banana. The Cavendish replaced the Gros Michel, or “Big Mike,” which was the prime variety grown in commercial plantations until the 1960’s. History reveals that Big Mike was so popular with consumers in the West that the banana industry established ever larger monocultures of this variety. Unfortunately, it appears we may not have learned the lesson Big Mike’s demise was meant to teach. In a word, the dangers of monocropping large tracts of land. As you know, growing only one type of crop in a large area causes crop vulnerability to insects, weeds, fungi, and other pests – as the pest spreads, it can continue unabated. Keep in mind that Cavendish bananas, just like their predecessor Gros Michel, are seedless, meaning their plants are genetic clones thus making them vulnerable to disease. At the moment, there is a soil-borne fungal disease spreading across the world and to date, it has damaged more than 30% of the Asian and Australian banana crop. And I’m told, that should the disease reach Latin America and the Caribbean, it could wipe out billions from the export market since 85% of the world’s banana’s originate there. The U.S. alone imports $2.3 billion in bananas each year. Cavendish bananas became the heir apparent when it was found they were resistant to the Fusarium wilt Race 1 strains, that devastated the Gros Michel. Unfortunately, they are not resistant to Black Sigatoka, which attacks the leaves causing cell death by affecting photosynthesis and leading to yield decline by as much as 50%. Interestingly, Cavendish growers currently manage Black Sigatoka through a combination of pruning infected leaves and applying fungicides – up to 50 or more applications a year. You can imagine how this practice is being received as health issues for workers arise, increased cost of production is being incurred and resistance is beginning to show itself, meaning stronger chemicals and more of them will be needed. These practices are no longer acceptable in our world of environmental stewardship and sustainability, so something else needs to be done. As scientists search for a new banana species, they have over a thousand to choose from. The problem with the majority of choices becomes the lack of desired characteristics that consumers, as well as producers, want. This is leading us towards the next level of production which will inevitably require genetic modification or gene editing. Keep in mind that almost every other crop used for food production has been significantly improved through plant breeding over the last century. It probably time for the banana industry to benefit from modern science. (Source: Wall Street Journal, CNN)
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