The failure to diversify makes the world's favourite fruit vulnerable to a wipeout.
The bananapocalypse is coming. That’s the likelihood that sometime in the next decade, bananas may disappear, victims of a fungal pathogen known as Panama Disease. The disease is on the march throughout the world, threatening the future of the world’s most popular fruit.
Panama Disease may be the cause of this disaster, but it’s also a symptom of a bigger problem afflicting global agriculture: a failure to diversify. For the past couple of centuries, the tendency has been to adopt a single reputable cultivar and — literally — bet the farm on it.
The most devastating case study in the dangers of monoculture comes from Ireland in the 1840s. After the discovery of potatoes in the New World, the Irish began cultivating them en masse. But while the Incas and other peoples had cultivated thousands of varieties of potatoes, the Irish only grew three kinds, mostly a homely variety known as the “Lumper.”
This particular potato proved remarkably productive. But it was vulnerable to a pathogen known as Phytophthora infestans, better known as potato blight. In 1845, the organism destroyed that year’s crop of Lumpers, and then raged across the rest of Europe. It’s estimated that a million people died of starvation in Ireland alone, with another 2 million people emigrating out of desperation.
Despite this object lesson in the dangers of monoculture, farmers planting crops often favorued a handful of trusted varieties. This was a rational choice, particularly for growers of crops destined for global markets, where economies of scale tended to privilege homogeneity over diversity. But this choice can end badly.
And so it was with the banana. Though bananas come in hundreds of shapes, sizes, colours and flavour profiles, a single cultivar became the fruit of the masses in the late 19th century: the Gros Michel banana, otherwise known as Big Mike. This particular breed, which originated in Southeast Asia, became a star commercial crop.
Big Mike had a lot going for it: enormous bunches of tasty, sweet bananas, resistance to bruising and an ability to stay fresh even when thrown in the sweltering hold of a ship. The big banana companies like United Fruit planted Gros Michel on sprawling plantations throughout Latin America and the Caribbean.
Like most edible bananas, Big Mike was sterile, and growers propagated it by taking a cutting that would become the basis of a new plant. Each banana plantation, then, was populated not only with a single variety of banana, but with bananas that had the exact same genetic material as one another. This was monoculture taken to an extreme.
At the very same time that this cultivar became the gold standard for banana connoisseurs, some of the plants began expiring , swiftly turning brown beginning with the bottom leaves and proceeding to the top, before the entire plant would topple over, dead. Though growers didn’t know what hit them at first, they eventually discovered the cause of the wilt: a fungus known as Fusarium cubense.