The humble banana is in trouble. Favorite fruit of body builders, practical jokes and gorillas for decades, it’s now threatened by a killer disease. But this isn’t the first time.
Let’s back up a little. In 1900, the banana had gone mainstream, in US culture, US comedy, and US bellies. It was the golden age of the golden fruit, and times were good. Bananas were more popular in the US than apples and oranges combined. Bananas were booming, and it looked like the yellow fruit could do no wrong. Unfortunately, the whole system was built on a shaky foundation.
When plantations are expanding they don’t plant seeds. They take a clipping from one banana tree, plant it, come back and a little later: presto! New banana tree. But that means all bananas are clones. So when viruses come along, they can devastate an entire nation of crops with ease. This is what happened in 1903. And it cost the world not only money, but also an entire banana species (which, allegedly, was much better than our mushy yellow friends today).
Now the same thing is happening again. We’ve cloned banana trees to grow millions of tons of Cavendish bananas (the stereotypical yellow banana) and a new disease (Tropical Race 4) is trying its best to wipe it out. It’s currently ravaging the Philippines but for the most part hasn’t reached South America or the Caribbean, which produce more bananas than anyone else by far.
The banana crisis, and how it has unfolded, demonstrates just how unstable our agricultural system is. By manipulating nature, we’ve exposed a chink in the Cavendish’s armor, one that might cost it its life. Without natural genetic mutation, there’s almost no hope of some banana trees having a natural immunity, an immunity that they could pass on to their offspring and form the next core plants for the industry. It shows an industry focused on short-term gain, despite the obvious long term consequences.
But what it really shows is that, in some ways, people never learn.
It’s enough to drive anyone bananas.