We can (probably) stop the twenty-year banana panic soon. Google up “banana disease 2016,” and you’ll yield, oh, somewhere in the neighborhood of 7.8 million results. (“Are bananas going to be extinct?” is also a popular search.) One of those results might be this April 2016 headline from Nature World News, which pretty much sums up what’s been true about the world’s banana supply, on and off, for around sixty years: “‘Panama Disease’ Throws Banana Industry into Global Crisis.”
Panama disease is a fungal pathogen that enters through the roots and disrupts the plant’s vascular system, eventually dehydrating it to death. Panama is especially lethal because it spreads so easily–through soil and water, from plant to plant, by people, infected equipment, rain, and runoff. And it lives a long time, lying dormant in soil for up to thirty years. In the 1950s, Panama disease obliterated completely the Gros Michel (the only banana we ate in the United States) everywhere but Asia.
In the interim, bananas have suffered all sorts of fresh biological torment from new pathogenic strains that attack not just the plant’s immune system, but also its metabolism. And there have been new cultivars, too: the Cavendish, for instance, which much of the U.S. and Europe began eating after the Gros Michel blight, and which had, until about the 1990s, proved immune to Panama disease. One of the new strains, Tropical Race 4, has threatened the crop in some parts of Asia and Africa, and last year was found in Australia.
But I did say we could ease up on banana panic, didn’t I? That may be thanks to Brazilian scientists at Empresa de Pesquisa Agropecuária e Extensão Rural de Santa Catarina (Epagri) and Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (Embrapa) who, after 15 years of research, announced they have developed a disease resistant banana.
The “Belluna” banana can be grown organically and without pesticides, Fruitnet reports, and is totally resistant to two of three pathogens that most commonly affect bananas in Brazil and the rest of the world, Panama disease among them. Scientists have registered the Belluna with the Ministry of Agriculture, which should pave the way for the fruit to be sold commercially.