Warm Southern Breeze

"… there is no such thing as nothing."

Is the Banana Boat Sunk?

Posted by Warm Southern Breeze on Saturday, August 17, 2019

You’re fixing to lose the bananas in your breakfast cereal.

And banana pudding will become only a sweet memory.

Grocery stores may no longer be selling bananas.


The global crop is dying, and will soon be dead.

Global as in worldwide.

Dead as in extinct.

Extinct as the Dodo bird.

Which, by the way, is thought to have become extinct c.1690 – a very long time ago. So naturally, there are no photographs of the Dodo bird, since the development of photography (yes, it’s a bad pun) was begun c.1826 with the image entitled “View from the Window at Le Gras,” which was made by Nicéphore Niépce, a French inventor in Saint-Loup-de-Varennes, France.

A harmful soil fungus, for which there is no known remedy, has begun to affect banana crops worldwide. Found in Taiwan in the 1990’s, the fungus, which resides naturally in the soil, is a variant of Fusarium called Tropical Race 4, or as TR4, and spread to Malaysia and Indonesia, then to China, Australia and the Philippines, then appeared in Mozambique, Africa, five years ago. It has now appeared in the South American nation of Columbia, where bananas are also cultivated.

Cross section of banana plant showing Fusarium wilt.

Fusarium wilt TR4 affects banana plants systemically, by blocking the roots vessels (which conducts up to the above-ground portion of the plant) so that the plant is effectively starved of nutrients and water, thus killing it. TR4 is deadly to most banana family members, including the Cavendish variety which consists the majority of international banana trade.

In response to the presence of the invasive fungus, Columbian government officials have declared a state of national emergency, and initiated control efforts aimed primarily at preventing TR4 from spreading, since there is no known remedy for it. In response, banana plantation owners and farmers have been destroying all banana tree plants located anywhere near a plant which develops symptoms of wilt.

However, by the time symptoms appear, the TR4 fungus has most likely been in the soil for at least a year, perhaps longer.

Banana plants infected with Fusarium wilt TR4 begin showing symptoms in the edges of the leaves.

There is some, though little, relief, which initially appears that the fungus spreads slowly – taking years or decades – though no one is certain how rapidly or widely it will travel. And while some Asian banana plantations have been affected by TR4, they continue to be major producers of the fruit.

Fortunately also, scientists are diligently working upon the problems posed by Fusarium wilt TR4. Australian scientists have developed a variety resistant to fungus by using genetic engineering, but the plant and its produce have not been approved for sale or commercial cultivation. And in the Netherlands, one scientist – Fernando Alexander García-Bastidas, a banana researcher with the Dutch company Keygene – while a graduate student at Wageningen University, in the Netherlands, tested over 300 varieties of bananas and found that 80% of them were susceptible to TR4. So there is a sliver of hope, however small.

Most bananas are the cooking-variety bananas called plantains, while others are wild with tiny fruit which renders it inedible because of the large number of seeds it contains.

Fusarium wilt-resistant Cavendish variety bananas have been developed, and are being grown, sold and shipped, but not on a worldwide basis.

Fusarium wilt-resistant Cavendish variants developed by the Taiwan Banana Research Institute were locally tested in farms severely infested with FOC (Fusarium oxysporum f. sp. cubense) in the Davao Region for adaptability, and passed export standards for China and the Middle East, but for no other nations or regions.

Further clues are being found as well. A 2017 research into soil conditions then and now when a similar event occurred in the 1940’s in Costa Rica and Nicaragua with the Gros Michel variety show a change in the microbiome of the soils which led significantly to the crop’s practical eradication by the 1960’s.

“A banana plant of the Gros Michel variety in Costa Rica attacked by the wilt organism.” A color plate by Elmer Walker Bandes, b.1891, who described it in a text entitled “Banana Wilt.” See: https://archive.org/stream/bananawilt00bran/#mode/1up

Gros Michel – French, which translates as Fat Michael, and is sometimes known as Big Mike – was a particularly well-suited for international trade because of its thick skin, is smaller than, and especially sweeter, compared to the Cavendish variety.

While the Fat Mike banana variety is still grown, its cultivation is mostly confined to Southeast Asia where it was developed, and in the years since, has remained disease-free, and grown in large-scale operations.

Other areas throughout the world still grow the Gros Michel banana, including in Pacific and Caribbean islands, portions of rural Africa, some small farms in Central and South America, along with a few small pockets of cultivation in Florida and California. Yet large-scale export production has practically ceased.

Fusarium wilt isn’t new, nor are the problems it presents. In 1919, it devastated banana crops in Costa Rica.

Monoculture – the practice of confining, and limiting cultivation to only one species, type or variety of a crop in an area – has also played a role in the problem caused by Fusarium wilt.

But again, there is hope.

Last year, in Japan, a variety of banana was developed which was resistant to cold temperatures, and had an edible peel.

Mongee bananas

Setsuzo Tanaka of D&T Farm has developed a variant of the Gros Michel which he planted in severe climatic conditions – 76ºF below zero – and then transplants in a warmer climate in a process he calls “Freeze Thaw Awakening Technology.” The resulting plant fruits in nine months, has a thinner peel which – though not as sweet as the banana – is also edible because no pesticides or herbicides were used upon it.

With an initial objective to bring back the Gros Michel, and to cultivate it free of pesticides, aka “organic,” in the midst of that process, he found that the resulting banana had a thinner, and edible skin.

Called the “Mongee banana” – (pronounced “mon-gay,” which is Japanese for “incredible banana” – the genetically engineered banana may also hold significant environmental promise.

Carla Ng, an Environmental Engineer with the University of Pittsburg, has studied pesticide runoff from banana plantations, and says conventional banana cultivation relies upon fungicides, herbicides and nematocides, all which can damage the surrounding aquatic ecosystems, most significantly in aquaculture. While levels of those biocides are well below the limits established for human safety, those same limits are well within the toxic range for aquatic life, and tend to accumulate in the areas where they’re used, thus creating an even more precarious scenario downstream. Fortunately, the Mongee banana may be a part of helping reduce those risk factors.

For the time being however, the Mongee banana is only shipped in small quantities in Japan. One store in the Okayama prefecture – Tenmaya – receives about 30 to 60 bananas every Friday. By Saturday, the banana – which sells for ¥648 yen each (about US$6) – is sold out.

In the mean time, look for banana prices to increase.

Banana futures on the CBOT… anyone?

For More Information, see: https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2019/08/16/751499719/devastating-banana-fungus-arrives-in-colombia-threatening-the-fruits-future

See also, from Agriculture Monthly, September 2014: https://www.agriculture.com.ph/2017/09/03/another-banana-variant-resists-fusarium-wilt-disease/

See also, Scientific Reports, Members of Gammaproteobacteriaas indicator species of healthy banana plants on Fusarium wilt-infested fields in Central America: https://cgspace.cgiar.org/bitstream/handle/10568/81180/Koberl_2017_Gamma.pdf

See also, BANANA MARKET REVIEW, Preliminary results for 2018, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations: http://www.fao.org/fileadmin/templates/est/COMM_MARKETS_MONITORING/Bananas/Documents/Banana_Market_Review_Prelim_Results_2018.pdf


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