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The Extinction of Bananas? Global Banana Industry at Risk Due to Deadly Pathogen

First Posted: Jul 11, 2014 12:23 PM EDT
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Bananas are the most important export commodity for Ecuador, Panama, Costa Rica, and Belize, and they're one of the top three exports in Colombia, the Philippines, Guatemala, Honduras, and Cameroon. The global banana industry, once bountiful with the popular fruits, is now in jeopardy.

The global banana trade represents a variety of social, political and economic issues, rooted in economic imperialism, but yet another issue has emerged. Listed as number four on the the world's list of staple crops and one of the biggest profit makers in supermarkets, bananas are being threatened in Latin America and other parts of the world by a ravaging pathogen.

Last year, banana farmers in Jordan and Mozambique cut into the roots of their banana plants and found rot, drawing fears that the contagious fungus would devastate plantations and spread to major producers and suppliers. The root-rotting disease is caused by strains of a soil fungus called Fusarium oxysporum, which slowly kills crops and is impossible to eliminate from soil. Previously, the pathogen was limited to parts of Asia and Australia, but the new Foc Tropical Race 4 (Foc-TR4) strain is wreaking havoc on the popular Cavendish cultivar, which accounts for a great bulk of the multi-billion dollar banana export trade.

"The story on the Mozambique situation was that workers brought over to establish the plantations — some of them were from Latin America," said Randy Ploetz, professor of plant pathology at University of Florida who discovered Tropical Race 4. He also said it may already be in Latin America. "And this is an insidious disease in that it can move ... by soil-contaminated machinery, tools — that kind of thing."

Banana exporters from Latin America are terrified; Latin America exports at least 70 percent of the world's $8.9 billion-a-year banana industry. The $548 million fruit giant Chiquita, which has the world's largest banana market share, is downplaying the threat of the pathogen: "It's certainly not an immediate threat to banana production in Latin America [where Chiquita's crops are]," Ed Lloyd, spokesman for Chiquita, told the Charlotte Business Journal in late December. Lloyd's company is using a "risk-mitigation program" to approach the potential spread of Foc-TR4.

But Chiquita and others have plenty to worry about because history could be repeating itself. In 1903, an earlier strain of the today's pathogen, called Race 1, eradicated the export plantations in the Carribean and Latin America, causing at least $2.3 billion in damage (around $18.2 billion in today's terms). Within 50 years, the world's only export banana species, the Gros Michel or "Big Mike" with its famously creamy flavor, became virtually extinct. The Cavendish became the choice export species because it was one of the only suitable bananas to survive Race 1. Tropical Race 4 has already caused $400 million in damages in the Philippines alone and is likely to spread.

"This disease is a problem not only because of its potential impact on the price and availability of our favorite fruit but also because it's a life-changing event for the people in developing countries who rely on bananas as a staple food and incomes," Alice Churchill, a scientist studying plant biology at Cornell University, told the Cornell Sun, "Those affected by [Race 1 or Panama disease] lose both their livelihoods and an important source of nutrition."

That iconic yellow Cavendish banana comprises less than half of the bananas grown around the world, but Americans buy more Cavendish bananas than apples and oranges combined. That said, exports make up only 15 percent of global output; the rest is consumed by banana-producing nations or sold in regional markets. The top two banana and plantain producers — India and China — don't export at all, even though they produce a combined 35 percent of the global yield.

In poor countries, bananas are often a basic source of nourishment for at least 400 million people. The average person in Uganda, Gabon, Ghana and Rwanda relies on bananas and plantains for more than 300 calories each day, and about 20 percent of the 74 million individuals living in those four countries are undernourished. Roughly 70 percent of all bananas consumed locally are vulnerable to Tropical Race 4, and its presence could shrink the food supply for hundreds of million people in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, who depend on bananas for basic sustenance.

The so-called "HIV of banana plantations" is the deadliest disease that bananas have ever seen, and it preys on adaptable "monoculture" or "monocrop" single species plants. Researchers have identified the Goldfinger as a replacement for the Cavendish, but the threat of Tropical Race 4 isn't only a consumer based-issue. The rotting of the plants could deprive entire communities of food and revenue.

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