Trivia 017: Goodbye, banana bread

One of my favorite things to bake is banana bread. It’s easy, tasty, and a great way to use up those last few bananas that are becoming a bit too ripe. However, there may come a day in the not too distant future when this classic yellow fruit disappears from our grocery stores. In fact, it’s already happened once before.

Growing fruit can be rather tricky. Take apples, for instance. If you were to plant an apple seed from an apple you bought at the store, chances are it would not come out anything like its parent. Just like how a child might end up very different than their parents, apple seeds do not carry the same genetic code as the trees that they came from. As a result, most popular kinds of apples are spread through grafting. This is the process by which a piece of a grown tree is cut off, then attached to a new host. The transplanted part will have all the same properties as the original tree, and will bear the exact same fruit. In order to develop new varieties of apples (known as “cultivars”), botanists must selectively breed plants together many times until they find a fruit with the properties they are looking for. Then they can make copies of that plant via grafting. As a result, all of these plants are essentially clones of each other.

Bananas, however, are even trickier. Have you ever noticed that there are often seven or eight different apple cultivars at the grocery store, but only one kind of banana? (And before anyone says anything, no, plantains are not bananas). Enter the star of this post, the Cavendish banana. This line of bananas was first cultivated under the direction of William Cavendish, the 6th Duke of Devonshire. These bananas propagate through the growth of “suckers” and “pups”. These are small sprouts that rise up from the base of a tree or its roots. Given time, they can develop into fully-fledged trees themselves. They can even be removed and transplanted elsewhere. Cavendish bananas rely solely on pups for propagation; they actually have no seeds. As a result, the banana industry relies almost entirely on a monoculture, with 99% of bananas produced for export being Cavendish bananas.

Reliance on monocultures can be dangerous, as they can be very susceptible to diseases. If a disease for which they have no resistance arises, it can wipe out the entire industry. Before the Cavendish arrived on the scene, most farmers planted a cultivar known as the Gros Michel. Due to its sweet taste and resistance to bruising, it dominated the banana industry. However, in the 1950’s, a fungus, known as Panama disease, began attacking the plants. It proved to be devastatingly effective against the plants, decimating orchards and wiping out huge numbers of plants. As a result, although the Gros Michel is still grown in places, most farmers have switched over to the Cavendish, which is more resistant.

Unfortunately, our story does not end there. New versions of Panama disease have appeared, which are effective against the Cavendish. While efforts are underway to produce disease-resistant strains of the Cavendish through genetic engineering, there is currently no replacement for this supermarket staple. So next time you eat a banana, savor it. It may be the last chance you get.

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