Banana Extinction Is Possible, But Science Might Save Us
It's a real threat for farmers
Sometimes you love something so much that you force it to stay the same forever. Sometimes doing this makes you single; other times, it leads to banana extinction on a worldwide level. As strange as that juxtaposition might sound, banana extinction is a real threat for farmers. A specific type of fungus, known as Tropical Race 4 (TR4), threatens to wipe out the world’s supply of Cavendish bananas. And if Cavendish bananas go extinct, the breakfast table may never look the same again. Heck, the last banana to go extinct, the Gros Michel, was a superior cultivar to the Cavendish we have today. What comes next could be even blander than what we’ve got now.
TR4, otherwise known as Panama Disease, attacks the root of the banana plant and kills it before it can successfully cultivate bananas. And because Cavendish bananas haven’t undergone the same kind of hybrid breeding as other commercial crops, the world’s supply is susceptible to TR4 in equal measure across the globe. In other words, banana extinction is much more likely to happen due in part to our very specific taste in bananas. So if we do see bananas go extinct, it might just be our own damn fault. 2016, you’re the gift that keeps on giving.
But despite the very real possibility of a banana extinction, not all hope is lost. Agricultural scientists are developing methods of cross-breeding bananas with other cultivars, which could help the fruit become more immune to Panama Disease by introducing new genetic traits in the banana we know and love. There are over a thousand banana varieties in the wild that have more robust genetic protection from fungal infection, which our beloved little Cavendish—what with all of its rampant human-sponsored inbreeding—does not. Granted, most of these other cultivars aren’t particularly tasty: Most have seeds, tougher textures, or are just generally not all that edible. But if cross-bred successfully, they might be able to provide edible, commercially grown bananas with a bit more immunity for widespread outbreaks like Panama Disease.
And if banana cross-breeding doesn’t save us, genetic testing just might. Scientists have successfully mapped the banana’s genome, as well as the fungi responsible for Panama Disease. This allows researchers to determine why the Cavendish is particularly susceptible to this fungal infection, and could possibly use genetic therapy to build a better banana. Either that, or scientists could try to fight fire with fire by creating a rival strain of the fungus that ultimately weakens the crop-debilitating outbreak. Either way, we have ourselves to blame for this mess—and hopefully we can rely on science to bail us out of it.