Your favorite source of potassium may be in trouble. According to a recent report, the banana equivalent to COVID-19 is spreading like wildfire. The Tropical Race 4 (TR4) is a fungus that has been rampaging through banana farms for the past 30 years. It infects banana plants through the soil and effectively chokes them to death by blocking their vascular systems.
TR4 is an offshoot of the Panama disease, which crippled the banana industry in the 1950s. At that time, the most commercially sold variety had been the “Big Mike” (Gros Michel) banana. However, due to the fungus, producers were eventually forced to drop the Big Mike. This predicament led to the rise of the Cavendish banana. According to Smithsonian Magazine, Cavendish bananas currently represent 99% of exported bananas and almost half of total worldwide production.
Why Are Bananas So Vulnerable?
Because Cavendish bananas are a monoculture, meaning they lack genetic diversity seen in most other fruits and vegetables, a single type of fungus can decimate banana crops across entire nations and even across continents. In this case, TR4 is a “doomsday” scenario for bananas. Within the last decade the TR4 epidemic has accelerated, spreading from Asia to Australia, the Middle East, Africa and more recently Latin America, where the majority of the bananas we eat come from.
García-Bastidas, who completed his doctorate on TR4 at the University of Wageningen, told BBC, the reason why TR4 is so deadly is because, just like Covid-19, it spreads by “stealth transmission,” albeit on different timescales. A diseased plant will look healthy for up to a year before it shows the tell-tale signs of stained yellow, wilting leaves. In other words, by the time you spot it, it is too late, the disease will likely have already spread via spores in the soil on boots, plants, machines or animals.
The Million Dollar Solution
One possible solution, would be to introduce more diversity into the banana crop so that it is more resilient to outbreaks of disease like TR4, says García-Bastidas. He points out there are hundreds of bananas with the potential for cultivation around the world. Why not use them? In countries like India, Indonesia and the Philippines people eat tens of different varieties of bananas, all of which offer different tastes, smells and sizes.
“We have hundreds of varieties of apples,” he points out. “Why not start offering different varieties of bananas?”
The best hope we have to avoid a shortage is for another resistant banana to emerge in the next five to 10 years. But it is not a silver bullet. After facing not one, but two pandemics in the last century, this time the banana industry has to look at more than just introducing another clone.