The bananas you find in the average U.S. grocery store are pretty much the same: They’re the genetic variety known as Cavendish and have been around for centuries. However, it wasn’t until a deadly fungus wiped out the commercial plantings of a different banana variety called Gros Michel, that Cavendish took center stage.
Now, researchers are fearing that history may be repeating itself as a new version of the fungus, called Tropical Race 4, is killing off the Cavendish variety and leaving many wondering if another banana variety will be able to step in and take its place.
As explained in a recent article, Tropical Race 4 is difficult to control because it can travel on the smallest particle of soil or even on a pair of shoes. So far it has marched across China and Southeast Asia, laying waste to banana plantations, as well as being responsible for killing bananas in Australia and southern Africa as well.
“I think it’s very realistic that the fungus will simply continue to spread,” Gert Kema, an expert on tropical plant diseases at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, said in the article.
Kema and other scientists are commencing the search for a banana that is immune to Tropical Race 4 and could replace Cavendish. Referring to their research as a “scientific sprint” to beat the fungus, it relies on the genetic diversity of bananas from Puerto Rico, where the USDA’s tropical agriculture research station is located. This is just one of many banana collections around the world that might hold the key to stopping the fungus’s deadly reach, the article states.
It’s a forest of banana diversity in Puerto Rico where bunches of red fruit dangle from some of the tall stalks; big green fruit from others and some with barely any fruit at all. Many of the varieties are wild, have very small fruit and contain seeds, making them near impossible to eat.
However, if any of these plants could withstand Tropical Race 4, they would be priceless.
The only way scientists will know for sure is by exposing these types of banana to the disease. It would be crazy to do this in Puerto Rico, of course, because the fungus hasn’t yet spread to the area. But Kema is doing such experiments in greenhouses at Wageningen University, which is one of Europe’s biggest centers of agricultural research.
Thus far, he has tested about 200 different banana plants, with less than 10% of them appearing to be resistant to Tropical Race 4. The ones that are able to resist the disease so far, however, are not likely candidates to replace Cavendish as their texture and flavor are not widely accepted.
This means it’s possible that the search for a replacement banana could fail, and the fungus will slowly destroy large-scale banana production around the globe. Kema, however, remains optimistic in that plant breeders could take those few disease-resistant bananas and mate them with others that taste good, creating offspring that might contain the best traits of both.
Kema explains there’s a special complication when breeding bananas. Breeders have to start with bananas that have seeds; otherwise, there are no offspring. But eventually their efforts have to produce a variety with no seeds, so that people will be able to eat it.
It can be done, Kema said, and in the best of all worlds, this breeding effort would come up with multiple varieties, not just one. And then, if big plantations grow them for export, consumers here might actually get to see and taste the kind of banana diversity that you can find already in places like Puerto Rico.
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