Imagining the Future of the Banana

Imagining the Future of the Banana

Bananas are under attack. To keep eating them, you’ll need to keep an open mind.


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Biology, Ecology, Health, Conservation

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Banana splits. Banana bread. Plain old bananas. Sweet and easy to eat, the curved yellow fruit is among the most popular foods in the world. Now, though, it faces a menace that is causing banana growers to scramble for alternatives. The threat is a fungal disease known as Fusarium wilt, or Panama Disease. It has been devastating banana plantations for decades.

Bananas are unlike almost all other fruits. There are hundreds of varieties, but there's only one major variety grown commercially for the U.S. and available in every supermarket in the U.S. and Europe. It's a large, sweet banana called the Cavendish. Producing identical bananas requires they be cloned, and as clones, they have the same exact genetic makeup. It also means that every tree has the same immune system. A disease that can take out one banana tree can realistically take out all of them.

Disease Spreading Around The World

The latest strain of Panama Disease isn't new, but has been spreading more rapidly in recent years. Since the 1990s, it spread across most of Eastern Asia, then to Africa, and then Europe. Most of North America's climate is unsuitable to produce bananas on a large, commercial scale. That has left South America as the only haven left to grow Cavendish bananas — but not for long. One fruit researcher I talked to called its arrival in the Western Hemisphere — inevitable. Another called the banana industry — a long-term train wreck.

Trying to limit the spread of biological material from infecting a cloned species can be like trying to stop a wildfire with spray bottles. The global spread of people and products has led some researchers to think that Panama Disease has probably already arrived in South America. It could take decades, though, to infect the entire continent.

So far, Panama Disease can't be stopped. But there is a strategy to deal with it. In the 1960s an earlier strain of the disease struck the Central American countries of Panama, Costa Rica, and Honduras. They responded by abandoning the top-selling banana, the once-popular Gros Michel (aka Big Mike) banana. They replaced it with the then-immune Cavendish. After half a century, some banana growers are hoping the banana industry can nimbly transition to a third-generation banana.

Genetic Options To Save Popular Banana

So what will tomorrow's bananas look like? It depends on who you ask. One short-term strategy is to create a variation of the Cavendish that is similar but not identical. It wouldn't be entirely immune to Panama Disease, but it might be resistant enough to keep the banana industry afloat.

Another option is creating a genetically modified banana using emerging CRISPR gene editing technology. Genetic engineers could rewrite the Cavendish's genetic code to resist specific diseases and pests. Researchers in the United States and in the Netherlands are trying the opposite, as well. They are studying the genetic code of the fungus to learn how to stop it.

And then there's the third option — the wild card — of stumbling upon an entirely new banana. In Southeast Asia, where bananas were first domesticated, this isn't entirely far-fetched. There are hundreds of banana varieties. One might replace the Cavendish banana the way the Cavendish replaced the Gros Michel banana.

Chiquita On The Defensive

Chiquita is the world's biggest banana producer. For many years, Chiquita has had a program to reduce the risk of the Panama Disease spreading, one official said. This ensured no outside dirt was introduced into South American plantations, dirt that could possibly transmit Panama Disease. That approach, though, is likely to only slow the disease's spread, not prevent it.

The best defense mechanism for future bananas will likely be the same one most fruits and vegetables already rely on: genetic diversity. "My hope is that the consumer who buys bananas will be more open-minded about what kind of banana they'll accept," says Randy Ploetz. He is a plant pathologist at the University of Florida. "People are addicted to Cavendish, but you might think about apples. People's only choice used to be Red Delicious, but now there are many more."

Different Varieties Available

That sort of diversification is already happening in many American supermarkets. Red bananas, green ones, bananas the size of a finger, are appearing in produce aisles. And the Cavendish's genetic relative, the firmer, starchier, and less-sweet plantain, is also being introduced more widely. None of these can replace the Cavendish, but they do introduce consumers to variety.

The biggest irony? It may turn out that persuading growers to produce less popular bananas for the sake of genetic diversity could turn out to be the easy part. Convincing people to eat them may be much harder.

Media Credits

The audio, illustrations, photos, and videos are credited beneath the media asset, except for promotional images, which generally link to another page that contains the media credit. The Rights Holder for media is the person or group credited.

Tyson Brown, National Geographic Society
Daniel Stone
Production Managers
Gina Borgia, National Geographic Society
Jeanna Sullivan, National Geographic Society
Program Specialists
Sarah Appleton, National Geographic Society, National Geographic Society
Margot Willis, National Geographic Society
André Gabrielli, National Geographic Society
Last Updated

December 21, 2023

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