The fungus-fueled crisis: Why bananas are headed for extinction

In recent years, a major threat to banana had risen up, which destroying its production in various countries. This is due to the threat posed by a particular kind of fungus known as Tropical Race 4 or (TR4). It is projected that in the coming years, this fungus can disrupt the worldwide supply chain of bananas, making our favourite fruit banana go extinct. In this article we going to discuss about this deadly fungus in details.

About Banana

The banana is a highly valuable fruit around the world. It is the most edible fruit, and it is mainly grown in tropical areas where the temperature is ideal for production. This fruit is well-known for its nutritional content, availability all year, and, most notably, it’s delicious flavor. Cavendish bananas are the most common breed, with supplies available everywhere.

Banana is typically eaten only when ripe, however it is sometimes consumed raw and fried. Its raw form is starchier than its mature version. It is widely accessible and reasonably priced. It’s popular in muffins, pancakes, pastries, and smoothies. A 100g ripe banana has about 117 calories, 75% water, 1g of protein, and a variety of micronutrients. When compared to Ripen Banana, Raw Banana contains 87 calories but greater micronutrient value than Ripen Banana.

History

Illustration of Alexandra the Great eating banana in India

The history of bananas is intertwined with the intriguing story of one of history’s most iconic figures, Alexander the Great. While embarking on his conquests across vast territories, Alexander’s journey brought him to the Indian subcontinent around 327 BC. It was during this expedition that he encountered a peculiar and delightful fruit, the banana, which would eventually become a staple in diets around the world.

As Alexander and his army traversed the lush landscapes of India, they encountered a fruit that was unlike any they had seen before. The banana, with its distinctive shape, vibrant colors, and enticing aroma, captured the curiosity of the Macedonian king. Enamored by the fruit’s unique flavor and nutritional value, Alexander took a keen interest in its cultivation and potential for wider consumption.

Recognizing the potential of the banana, Alexander saw an opportunity to introduce this newfound delicacy to different corners of the world. He envisioned its cultivation beyond the Indian subcontinent, aiming to spread its appeal to regions that could support its growth. With his characteristic ambition and strategic vision, Alexander began efforts to cultivate and propagate the banana beyond its native habitat.

After leaving India, Alexander and his forces ventured to the region of Hispaniola, located in present-day Caribbean. It was here that his vision of spreading the banana to different parts of the world started to take shape. Alexander oversaw the establishment of banana plantations on Hispaniola, introducing the fruit to new terrain and climates.

Over time, the banana thrived in its new environment, adapting and flourishing in the favorable tropical conditions. The fruit’s popularity gradually spread among local populations, who recognized its nutritional value and versatility in their diets. From Hispaniola, the cultivation and consumption of bananas began to expand to neighboring islands and territories, thanks in part to Alexander’s early efforts.

This historical encounter between Alexander the Great and the banana serves as a captivating tale of discovery and cross-cultural exchange. The Macedonian conqueror’s fascination with this humble fruit played a role in introducing it to regions far beyond its original home. While the exact details of Alexander’s interactions with the banana may be lost to time, his influence on its spread and adoption remains an enduring testament to his legacy.

As centuries passed, the banana continued to evolve and adapt, eventually becoming a global staple and a symbol of tropical abundance. The story of Alexander’s encounter with the banana offers a glimpse into the complex history of agricultural exploration and the transformative impact of cultural interactions on the world’s culinary landscape.

The first strain – Gros Michel

During the 1900s, this particular variety was the most popular and influenced the global market. As soon as it was introduced in America, its demand skyrocketed, and it began to be farmed on a massive scale. If compared to today’s dominant variety (Cavendish Banana), the Gross Michel variant was more flavorful and fresh for longer days. However, its downfall started around the 1950s, when a related fungus (Fusarium wilt) started to infect banana harvests, the strain of fungus is also known by name tropical race 1 (TR1) which caused the panama disease.

These fungal strains gradually expanded to the point that they ruined the whole crop. It is a soil-borne disease that degrades the soil’s quality. Because banana farming is dependent on the soil, people had to ultimately burn their whole crop so that this fungus will not spread further and other crops could be cultivated. That’s how the famous variety ‘Gros Michel’ got extinct.

The current Strain – Cavendish Banana

When Gross Michel’s variety went extinct, a new variety was discovered that was slightly resistant to the tropical race 1 (TR1) fungus. It was known as Cavendish banana, which was named after William Cavendish. The banana that we enjoy today is 99% Cavendish Banana. Its skin is initially green, but as it matures, its color changes to yellow. When it reaches its final form, when the starch changes to sugar, dark / black patches emerge on it, indicating that this banana will be very sweet to consume. This banana will become extinct in the same way as ‘Gros Michel’ did.

TR4 disease infecting the tree of banana

Tropical Race 4 (TR4), a mutated strain of the fungus that attacked ‘Gros Michel’, has already started infecting Cavendish Banana in Colombia in 2019. In 2021, it started to spread in Peru as well. This fungus is slowly spreading to other nations as well. If this continues, we will lose the Cavendish banana in the coming years.

What causes this disease to spread to all bananas?

Bananas are sterile and contain no seeds. Since bananas lack seeds, they are all clones of one another. They can only be cultivated in one way: new growths from the old tree, also known as suckers, are taken from the plant’s base and developed in vitro. This is how bananas are cultivated. Because all bananas are clones of each other and have no variation, if disease hits one banana, all bananas are going to get effected. This type of effect is also known as ‘domino effect’. Therefore, stopping the fungal infection becomes difficult.

Global market size

The banana business has grown a lot and is now a big part of the economy, worth around $25 billion in 2020. India is a top contributor, producing the most bananas in the world, with 31 million tonnes each year. However, most of these bananas are eaten within the country, and only a small amount is sent to other countries. China also plays a big role, making 11 million tonnes of bananas each year.

When we look at how bananas are sold to other countries, Ecuador is a major leader. There are also other countries like the Philippines, Costa Rica, Colombia, and Guatemala that are involved in selling bananas around the world. It’s important to note that bananas are more than just a regular food – they also help countries make a lot of money. So, they’re not only something we eat, but they’re also a big part of the economy.

Solution

If we want to save this 25$ billion-dollar industry, drastic measures need to be conducted as soon as possible. The First thing that can be done is that we can vaccinate bananas by incorporating extremely weak fungal strains into the vaccine, so that banana can develop resistance against the Tropical Race 4 (TR4) fungus.

Another option is to use the intercropping approach, which involves growing banana alongside other plants to assist the banana combat the TR4 fungal disease.

Lastly, among the 1000 banana varieties, we could find one that shows resistivity to TR4 disease, and then employ genetic engineering to extract those particular genes and insert them into Cavendish variety to achieve resistance.

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