The quest to save the banana from extinction

Panama disease is an infection that ravages banana plants, and unfortunately it has swept across Asia, Australia, the Middle East and Africa. The impact has been devastating.

In the Philippines alone, losses have totalled US$400m. And the disease threatens not only the livelihoods of everyone in this US$44 billion industry, but also the 400 million people in developing countries who depend on bananas for a substantial proportion of their calorie intake.

However, there may be hope. In an attempt to save the banana and the industry that produces it, scientists are in a race to create a new plant resistant to Panama disease. But perhaps this crisis is a warning that we are growing our food in an unsustainable way and we will need to look to more radical changes for a permanent solution.

To understand how we got here, we need to take a look back at the history of the banana, and in particular the middle of the last century, when a crisis that had been growing for decades was threatening to bring down whole economies and leave thousands destitute. The banana was dying out.

A condition known as Fusarium wilt or Panama disease was wiping out whole plantations in the world's major banana-producing countries of Latin America. Because bananas of the same type are virtually genetically identical, if one plant becomes infected, all of the other trees in a plantation are also susceptible. This meant it was only too easy for Panama disease to sweep through huge expanses of vulnerable host plants. In many areas, all of the trees were killed.

Without a cure or treatment, there was no way back for a plantation once the disease had taken hold. For a while, the banana companies carved new plantations from untouched rainforests. But this act of environmental vandalism only postponed the inevitable. Soon these areas, too, became contaminated and cultivation became unsustainable. Estimates vary, but losses due to the Panama disease epidemic may have reached US$2.3 billion, equivalent to about US$18.2 billion today.


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