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by Larry

January, 2016

Big Bananas in Big Trouble

The most popular banana in the world, the Cavendish, is seriously threatened by a fungus, Tropical Race 4 (TR4), for which there is currently no effective remedy. Just as occurred at the "hands" of another fungus (TR1) to a prior banana favorite, Gros Michel, a more flavorful variety than Cavendish that was popular about 100 years ago, the currently much preferred banana type is being decimated wherever TR4 comes into contact with it, which, since 2003, so far includes China, the Philippines, Jordan, Oman, and Australia. As yet TR4 has made few if any inroads in South America, the currently main Cavendish producer, yet efforts by the UN to have sick plants quarantined have to this point been unsuccessful, so it is seen as inevitable that this banana haven will fall prey to TR4 as well.

Cavendish bananas (Wikipedia)

There is a potential fix for the problem, one that might save essentially the same type banana Americans now eat with greater delight than apples, but that involves genetic engineering, so controversial that interest groups against GMOs have resisted distribution in Africa of bananas genetically engineered through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to help add nutrients to the diets of often impoverished Africans. Promising research on genetic engineering of the Cavendish indicates that the fungus could be stopped in its tracks by inserting genes possessed by another banana variety and so increase disease resistance.

However the fight plays out over whether or not to genetically engineer the Cavendish, a GMO form of the most liked banana is unlikely to be generally available before most of the current Cavendish growers and distributors face staggering financial losses and are unable to keep supplies of the fruit comparable to demand.

How soon will the Cavendish disappear from our supermarkets? It is hard to say. In 2003, speculation was that they would have been gone by now. The fact that so far Western Hemisphere growers have been spared was unforeseen. The UN indicates that because quarantines were less than perfect funguses from sick plants will eventually reach South American shores too and likely spread quickly thereafter.

Meanwhile, just as the Cavendish replaced the Gros Michel, other banana varieties, hundreds of them, are waiting in the wings. They come in many colors, flavors, and sizes. We may wind up with a smaller, yet more delicious, red or blue one next. Still, whichever bananas eventually become the new favorites, once monoculture type agricultural practices are at play with them as well, additional fungal blights will within a few decades threaten those, unless they too might be genetically modified.

Primary Source: The Only Way to Save Your Beloved Bananas Might be Genetic Engineering. Maddie Oatman in; December 21, 2015.

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