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Last week I caught part of an interview on Fresh Air with Dan Koeppel, author of Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World. [Aside: Yes, yet another book about a simple thing that “changed the world.” Why is this trope so popular lately?] For the past few years, Koeppel has been raising alarms about the possibility that, because of genetic uniformity, disease may wipe out the Cavendish banana – the standard yellow banana that Americans have known and loved since the 1920s.

Although there are hundreds of varieties of banana, and the Cavendish is not among the most delicious of them, other bananas are viewed as unsuitable for shipping in large quantities to the United States. They ripen too fast, for example, or their skins are too fragile. The major banana companies selected the Cavendish after a fungus wiped out the former U.S. favorite, the Gros Michel, worldwide. At the time, many thought the Cavendish was a big risk, because it simply didn’t taste as good at the Gros Michel. But with extensive advertising (everyone knows the Chiquita banana song), the Cavendish came to be the top-consumed fruit in the U.S.—outpacing even the apple.

But now the Cavendish may be at risk, as “Panama disease Race 4,” a fungus, has been wiping out banana plantations in Asia since the early 1990s. Many believe it will soon hit Africa and Latin America. We have long known that monoculture makes our food supply vulnerable—so the threat to the Cavendish banana is hardly surprising. Banana companies would suffer a major loss if the Cavendish were killed off, and I would certainly miss my morning banana, but, to a certain extent this seems like just deserts for an industry that has ignored the implications of monoculture and done so much social and environmental damage in Latin America.

 

However, it seems very likely that, to save the Cavendish banana, the banana industry will seek out a transgenic disease-resistant variety, choosing a temporary technological fix for the fundamental problem of genetic homogeneity. (more…)

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