There's always money in the banana stand... unless there are no more bananas on Earth because an unstoppable fungus has made them extinct. That is apparently a real possibility, according to a new report from Nature.
The scientific journal reports that a fungus that is deadly to Cavendish bananas — the common yellow variety that amounts to 80 percent of all banana exports — has reached plants in Mozambique and Jordan. Until now the fungus, Fusarium oxysporum f. sp.cubense, has only affected crops in Southeast Asia and Australia. (Specifically Taiwan, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and China.) The expansion marks an intercontinental creep, and researchers fear the fungus will soon reach Latin America, which grows the majority of the world's bananas.
Mike Peed described the severity of the threat back in a 2011 piece for the New Yorker:
The Cavendish represents ninety-nine percent of the banana export market. The vast majority of banana varieties are not viable for international trade: their bunches are too small, or their skin is too thin, or their pulp is too bland...
He also spoke to a farmer who saw the effects of the fungus on Cavendish bananas:
The leaves turned a soiled yellow, starting at the edges and rapidly moving inward; necrotic patches appeared and, a few weeks later, the leaves buckled... Inside the plant, the effects were even worse. Something was blocking the plants' vascular system, causing rot, and tissue that should have been as ivory as the inside of a celery stalk was a putrefying mixture of brown, black and blood-red.
A strain of the fungus was responsible for the demise of the precursor to the Cavendish, the Gros Michel banana. The Gros Michel was the main type of banana imported into the U.S. from the 19th century through the 1950s, when the fungus struck. Gros Michel has been described as tastier than the beloved Cavendish, but most present-day fruit lovers have never tasted of its glory.
To make matters worse, Costa Rica just declared its own banana emergency after mealybugs and scale insects began attacking banana plants, making them ineligible for export. Agriculture engineer Eric Bolanos told Sky News that these bugs are essentially banana vampires:
Basically, what it does is suck out the nutrients, or sap from the plant's organs, stems, leaves. It could reach the fruit, causing damage (like) dark stains.
A representative from the country's Phytosanitary Service said up to 20 percent of crops could be affected, adding "At the moment, the problem that we have is that the two plagues are distributed practically across the entire (agricultural) sector where there is banana."
Scientists are working to develop new banana strains that will be able to withstand the fungus, but according to Nature, progress in engineering resistant bananas has been "limited."
On the plus side, a decrease in the supply of Cavendish bananas could mean that growers will work to restart mass sales of the Gros Michel, which still makes up 13 percent of banana exports. James Dale, director of the Centre for Tropical Crops and Biocommodities at Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia, told Nature he is attempting to engineer a Gros Michel strain that will be able to stand up to the fungus. " "It's such a superior banana to Cavendish," he said. "To bring it back would be wonderful."