New disease could impact banana supplies, push up prices

Going bananas

"Yes, we have no bananas"

Are you familiar with this song lyric? Maybe you didn’t know it was a lyric, but rather as a silly expression. Either way, it’s catchy, and it does seem to sum up those ridiculous times when you think things are going along tickety-boo, and then suddenly they aren’t.

The song was written in the 1920s and was apparently based on a New York shopkeeper who started every sentence with the word “yes”. He tried to be the consummate greengrocer, but he often didn’t have exactly the right item. The songwriter was struck by his combination of enthusiasm and the melodic rhythm of his sales pitch.

One could simply admire the shopkeeper for staying positive in the face of adversity. It is a signature trait of a successful entrepreneur. But I am giving him much more credit; this fellow was a poster boy for food security and sustainable farming.

You see, bananas are perhaps the best example of a monoculture crop—almost all of the world’s commercial supply of bananas is a single type. Up until the 1950s, this type was called Gros Michel.

The Gros Michel bananas of Central America were the dominant strain for almost 100 years. But in the 1950s, a fungus called Panama disease, or fusarium wilt, devastated the crops. When it began to spread to southern American plantations as well, work began to find another disease-resistant strain.

Now the bananas you and I eat all the time are the Cavendish variety. It did very well as a replacement, being immune to Panama disease.

World markets have done nothing but expand and for a sturdy crop like Cavendish bananas, that meant more interest. In the 1980s, Malaysia entered the banana market, planting what people wanted—more Cavendish. (One of the desirable characteristics of bananas is their ability to reproduce asexually, as in no pollination needed. This provides a consistent product.)

Unfortunately, as we all know now, diseases like to mutate. A new version of Panama disease was found in Malaysia and it was discovered the Cavendish bananas were not immune to that strain. (Note: Bananas produced in infected soil are not unsafe for humans. The infected plants just stop bearing fruit, according to a National Geographic 2019 article.)

The new variant was called “tropical race 4”. It spread throughout neighbouring countries. In Latin America in 2013, the regional organization for plant and animal health met to devise a contingency plan against this new strain but there still doesn’t seem to be any measures in place. (The consequence of a consistent product bred asexually is that it is hard to modify.)

In 2019, Colombia, one of the world’s top exporters of Cavendish bananas, announced it detected the disease. There is no known way to stop it and unlike in the 1950s, there is so far no alternative banana that can fit the bill to provide a product that will work on the international market.

This may mean we will see prices starting to rise on bananas. Perhaps some exotic varieties will appear in more stores but either way we will have to get used to paying more for what used to be the cheapest fruit in the store.

For countries where the banana is a more crucial part of the diet and the economy, that means more hardship than a new ingredient in a smoothie. Latin America will feel the 1-2 punch of this banana pandemic.

I wonder if the greengrocer in New York knew what was coming. Were his efforts to convince people to choose something else a foreshadowing of our fate?

Is it sustainable to think we can have anything and everything on our plates? Maybe this is an example of “too much of a good thing”.

So hold the banana - I will be having fruit from the market down the road on my cereal instead.

More Happy Gourmand articles

About the Author

Kristin Peturson-Laprise is a customer experience specialist by trade, which means she is someone passionate about people having a good time. 

Her company, Wow Service Mentor, helps businesses enhance their customer experience through hands-on training, service programs, and special event coordination.

Kristin enjoys her own experiences too, and that is what she writes about in this column. She and her husband Martin Laprise (also known as Chef Martin, of The Chef Instead) love to share their passion for food and entertaining.  

Kristin says:

"Wikipedia lists a gourmand as a person who takes great pleasure in food. I have taken the concept of gourmandise, or enjoying something to the fullest, in all parts of my life. I love to grow and cook food, and I loved wine enough to become a Sommelier. I call a meal a success when I can convey that 'sense of place' from where the food has come . . . the French call that terroir, but I just call it the full experience. It might mean tasting the flavours of my own garden, or transporting everyone at the table to a faraway place, reminiscent of travels or dreams we have had."


E-mail Kristin at:  [email protected]

Check out her website here:  www.wowservicementor.com


The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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