Disease threatens to wipe out Britain’s favourite bananaMay 14, 2019
Yes, soon we REALLY may have no bananas: Almost all the 5 billion bananas Britons eat each year come from a single variety created 180 years ago, but now a disease is threatening to wipe it out
Life without bananas? Unthinkable. For centuries they have been the affordable, all-but-essential food that encapsulates sweetness and nourishing goodness in a handy, easy-to-peel package.
Expectant mothers crave them, and mashed banana is often a baby’s first solid meal. Millions of people breakfast on them and sporting champions munch them mid-match to boost their flagging energy.
The popular 1920s song ‘Yes, we have no bananas’, about a Greek fruit-stand owner who began every sentence with ‘Yes’, has been a source of cheer for decades.
A devastating disease is sweeping through countries which grow bananas threatening to wipe them out entirely
The trouble is that banana farming is mono-cultural. This means plantations have only a single species — as cultivating just one type of plant means increased yields and more profits
But the shocking fact is that the ditty is becoming reality — we can no longer take our bananas for granted.
A devastating disease is sweeping through countries which grow the fruit.
The situation is so serious that it could halt imports of the five billion bananas that come to the UK every year: no bananas on supermarket shelves, nor in greengrocers and a massive change to the modern diet.
The trouble is that banana farming is mono-cultural. This means plantations have only a single species — as cultivating just one type of plant means increased yields and more profits.
So the fruit we eat in Britain come from just one cultivar, the Cavendish sweet banana, which accounts for nearly 50 per cent of bananas worldwide and 99 per cent of all exports.
But the Cavendish is highly susceptible to a strain of Panama disease, a devastatingly infectious fungus that destroys the plants from the inside, causing them to wilt and collapse, wiping out whole plantations.
Worse, its spores live on in the soil for years so replanting them is impossible.
So far, this strain of Panama disease has ravaged plantations in South-East Asia, China, Australia, Africa and the Middle East. A month ago, it was found in India, a major producer.
The greatest fear is that it will spread west. For Latin America dominates the banana business and is home to the world’s largest grower — Ecuador.
If Panama disease reaches the plantations of Latin America, the devastation would be apocalyptic for producers and consumers, for, as yet, there is no replacement for the Cavendish.
So the fruit we eat in Britain come from just one cultivar, the Cavendish sweet banana, which accounts for nearly 50 per cent of bananas worldwide and 99 per cent of all exports
This is what happens when an industry puts all its faith in one cultivar, and makes no plans for its possible downfall.
Perhaps it is down to complacency. Until now, the banana industry has been an incredible business success story, profiting traders as well as retailers (although not always the farmers, unfortunately.)
Part of this success is down to the extraordinarily resilient qualities of the Cavendish cultivar.
As an export fruit they are impeccably behaved — they do not blemish during shipping, they can endure long journeys once picked, and will ripen almost to order in the importing country.
But the origins of this super-successful variety are not in the tropics, as you might expect.
The Cavendish was first cultivated — as its name suggests — in the hot houses of the stately home Chatsworth in Derbyshire belonging to the Cavendish family, better known as the Dukes of Devonshire.
It was the 6th Duke’s head gardener and friend Joseph Paxton who developed the plant, and after it flowered and produced 100 bananas in 1835, it caused a sensation in a Royal Horticultural Society show.
The Duke gave some of Paxton’s plants to a missionary who took them to Samoa, and from there the plants went to Madagascar, the Canary Islands and finally to the Caribbean. For decades, they were not the commercial growers’ choice — that was another banana, Gros Michel, or Big Mike.
It was sweeter, but in the early 1920s it fell victim to the first known strain of Panama disease, which wiped it out.
Fortunately, the Cavendish was resistant to this strain and for decades it has underpinned the success of the industry.
It enabled the famous families Fyffes and Geest to thrive, followed by the multi-national companies that specialised in bananas, such as Dole, Chiquita and Del Monte. More recently, supermarkets have bought direct from growers. And yet over all this time the beneficiaries of the banana industry failed to anticipate that the Cavendish might succumb to a new strain of Panama disease; that history would repeat itself.
It appears to be negligence on a vast scale.
It is not just the British who rely on bananas as a cheap source of nutrition — some of the world’s poorest countries depend on banana farming for income. Ecuador exports 5 million tonnes per year and Colombia nearly 2 million tonnes. In the Caribbean, the Dominican Republic is the second biggest exporter to the UK
It is not just the British who rely on bananas as a cheap source of nutrition — some of the world’s poorest countries depend on banana farming for income. Ecuador exports 5 million tonnes per year and Colombia nearly 2 million tonnes. In the Caribbean, the Dominican Republic is the second biggest exporter to the UK.
The race to resolve the problem has begun — and not before time.
Scientists at Key Gene, an innovative crop development company in the Netherlands, are working to find a resistant banana variety.
Colombian scientist Dr Fernando Garcia, who has been studying banana plants for years, believes there is a threat.
‘I cannot predict when the disease will arrive in Latin America and the other uninfected countries, but it is inevitable,’ he says. However, he is optimistic that a solution will be found by studying old wild varieties, extracting their DNA and cross-breeding. But the process will be slow.
‘We are five to 15 years away from a new variety that is tested and ready for commercial farming,’ he says, frustrated that work did not begin sooner. ‘Research should have begun 20 years ago.’
Other plant technologists say genetic modification (GM) is the only way to produce a disease-resistant banana, but controversy over the safety of GM foods will delay finding a solution.
The lesson being learned is that the monocultural — ‘all eggs in one basket’ — approach is out-dated and always ends in disaster.
Despite our dependence on the Cavendish, there are more than 500 varieties of banana.
They can be separated into two main types, sweet bananas — the ones we eat raw, such as the Cavendish — and cooking bananas. If the world’s banana farms grew different species, disease would be less likely to take hold.
‘It was never in the interest of the banana companies to sell more types, because the Cavendish was so successful,’ says Dr Garcia. ‘But that opinion is now changing. It would be great to have more options to choose from in shops and it would help solve the disease problem.’
There are types much more delicious than the Cavendish, and they come in all sorts of interesting hues and shapes.
There’s one called Blue Java —also known as the Ice Cream banana because its flesh is soft, creamy and tastes of vanilla. There are Red Bananas which are exceptionally fragrant and sweet. Ladies’ Fingers varieties are beguilingly small — ideal for a snack or the appetite of a child. The Apple banana might make a nice change, or a Fig banana.
As for cooking bananas, plantains can be served as crispy chips, alongside fried chicken, and there is also the glorious Musa Belle, traditionally used to make banana fritters — utter heaven. (It’s named after the genus ‘musa sapientum’ (fruit of the wise man) — while the word ‘banana’ comes from the Arabic word ‘banan’ (finger).
When we shop for apples, we can choose from at least six types, even when they are not in season — in autumn, when they are, there are umpteen exciting varieties.
The usual excuse for supermarkets failing to offer variety is that the consumers do not want it.
But since the banana industry has not offered us anything but one type of banana for nearly 100 years, we had little idea that there are delicious alternatives.
The choice is a stark one: if we don’t embrace other varieties — or start cross-breeding — we risk having no bananas at all.
Red, orange and even blue. If the banana is to have a future, it might have to be as colourful as its past.
Time to go home… for Teddy
If you have a soft spot for Teddy from Fifties children’s TV show Andy Pandy… he could be yours for £5,000.
The 9in bear starred with puppet Andy and rag doll Looby Loo in the BBC series.
Leigh Gotch, specialist at C&T Auctions, Kent, which is selling the mohair toy on May 22, says: ‘This appears to be the original Teddy made for the opening episodes of the show which have been lost.’
The 9in bear starred with puppet Andy and rag doll Looby Loo in the BBC series
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