C&B Notes

Cavendish Crisis?

We enjoyed the book The Fish That Ate The Whale about Sam Zemurray’s rise to be the “Banana Man” and eventually head of the United Fruit Company (now Chiquita).  Bananas grow from a rhizome, which makes all bananas of a certain variety clones.  This lack of genetic diversity makes any variety susceptible to destruction from a single disease.  The Cavendish variety, which accounts for 50% of global production, is currently in danger.  A ready replacement does not yet exist.

A deadly fungus that threatens the future of the banana has reached Latin America, the leading exporter of the fruit to world markets. The Colombian agriculture and fishing institute (ICA) has confirmed the arrival of Panama TR4 disease, a soil-dwelling fungus that has devastated plantations in south-east Asia over the past 30 years. It threatens the Cavendish banana, the variety that accounts for half of global production and 95 per cent of the world’s exports. The ICA has declared a “national emergency”, expanding preventive measures to the whole country. Latin America’s plantations are the source of two-thirds of the global banana trade…

The fungus does not affect humans but infected plants stop producing fruit. Spreading through soil movement, typically caused by workers and machinery, it has destroyed plantations in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. The disease was first suspected in Colombia in June in the province of La Guajira in the far north-east of the country.

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The Cavendish variety is based on a single genetic clone, which means that it is vulnerable to epidemics. Before the Cavendish became the dominant variety, the Gros Michel was the most widely eaten banana. However, this was wiped out in the 1950s by the first strain of Panama disease. While improved varieties of many fruit and vegetables are continually introduced, the banana industry has relied on the Cavendish with virtually no research and development going into new varieties until recently, according to plant experts. If Latin America’s Cavendish banana plantations are destroyed, there is nowhere international fruit suppliers can turn to, warned Prof Kema. “We’re confronted with the fact that there is nothing [that can] replace [the Cavendish yet].”

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