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Bye Bye Bananas — the Return of Panama Disease 519

Posted by kdawson
from the where-you-gonna-get-your-potassium dept.
Ant sends in a disturbing report in The Scientist on an imminent threat to worldwide banana production. "The banana we eat today is not the one your grandparents ate. That one — known as the Gros Michel — was, by all accounts, bigger, tastier, and hardier than the variety we know and love, which is called the Cavendish. The unavailability of the Gros Michel is easily explained: it is virtually extinct. Introduced to our hemisphere in the late 19th century, the Gros Michel was almost immediately hit by a blight that wiped it out by 1960. The Cavendish was adopted at the last minute by the big banana companies — Chiquita and Dole — because it was resistant to that blight, a fungus known as Panama disease... [Now] Panama disease — or Fusarium wilt of banana — is back, and the Cavendish does not appear to be safe from this new strain, which appeared two decades ago in Malaysia, spread slowly at first, but is now moving at a geometrically quicker pace. There is no cure, and nearly every banana scientist says that though Panama disease has yet to hit the banana crops of Latin America, which feed our hemisphere, the question is not if this will happen, but when. Even worse, the malady has the potential to spread to dozens of other banana varieties, including African bananas, the primary source of nutrition for millions..."
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Bye Bye Bananas — the Return of Panama Disease

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  • by zAPPzAPP (1207370) on Monday June 02, 2008 @05:52AM (#23624753)
    Will this finally be the end of "Peanut Butter Jelly Time"?
  • but it is also solved by genetic variation. the story is a little hysterical, as african varieties are also genetically different enough to resist the new cavendish-hungry fungus. not that the african varieties can't be attacked, but the emphasis is on african VARIETIES: more genetic variation means more resistance to the weakness of monoculture
    • by onion2k (203094) on Monday June 02, 2008 @06:07AM (#23624831) Homepage
      The problem is that all banana plants around today are sterile. The only way to cultivate new plants is by cuttings (taking a small section of an existing plant and growing it into a big plant). Consequently there is no way to introduce new variations. If all the varieties around today become susceptible to disease then that's it, they're gone. For those of us in the west that's just one less choice in the supermarket, but there are vast swathes of the world where the banana is the staple carbohydrate source for millions of people. It'd be like the west no longer having anything to make flour for bread, and having no alternative. Anyone who thinks this isn't a huge problem is wrong.
    • by Sockatume (732728) on Monday June 02, 2008 @06:33AM (#23624943)
      Actually, New Scientist did a story about this, maybe five years ago, which was worried about the bananas' genetic variation, but didn't have any specific threat attached. They pointed out that although the current banana plants is pretty hardy, they're cultivated by cloning, so there's very little capacity for adaptation there. I forget the details of the story, but it was something like "there may not be any bananas as we know them in 25 years". Now the threat actually exists...
      • by Anonymous Coward on Monday June 02, 2008 @07:22AM (#23625147)
        Yes, monoculture is a HUGE problem.

        At the moment I'm working in the bio/ag-tech industry and can see the same thing coming down the road in the wheat/corn/soybeans/milo industry, where big industry players have foolishly limited the gene pool in the name of profit.

        The worst part about it is the fact that many of the people driving monoculture are trained scientists who, for some reason, are oblivious to its negative ramifications.

        Posting as AC to avoid other, uh, negative ramifications
        • by Falkkin (97268) on Monday June 02, 2008 @11:10AM (#23627181) Homepage
          It's not that scientists are oblivious to negative ramifications -- it's economics, specifically tragedy of the commons.

          If everyone else is cloning Tasty Profitable Banana, and you don't, you go out of business because either your bananas aren't Tasty or your bananas aren't Profitable. Therefore there's a penalty for maintaining variation, and the only potential benefit -- not having your whole crop wiped out by a blight -- isn't something you can bet on. Most likely, economic forces will drive you out of business long before your more varied gene pool can have any beneficial effect.

          There's a benefit to society (and the entire banana-growing industry) if there is a diverse gene pool, but no individual business has an incentive to maintain such a gene pool.
    • by Albert Sandberg (315235) on Monday June 02, 2008 @06:36AM (#23624955) Homepage
      And what do you think will happen when all rich countries will buy bananas from africa? This happens with all kinds of food already, this aint good news for the poor people of africa.
      • by c6gunner (950153) on Monday June 02, 2008 @07:02AM (#23625055)

        And what do you think will happen when all rich countries will buy bananas from africa?


        For the most part, they (we?) won't. Most varieties of Banana's are rather small and nasty. They're not the kind of thing your average westerner is likely to enjoy.

        On the other hand, assuming they can find a variety of Banana which is easy to cultivate, resistant to this disease, AND tasty, then it'll be a huge boon to their economy. It could do more good for Africa than all the foreign aid of the last three decades combined.
        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          On the other hand, assuming they can find a variety of Banana which is easy to cultivate, resistant to this disease, AND tasty, then it'll be a huge boon to their economy. It could do more good for Africa than all the foreign aid of the last three decades combined.

          Or, of course, the 3 or 4 big banana companies of the earth (which are all 'western'), will jump into the void and start exploiting African banana farmers, let them work in dangerous conditions, using chemicals, and not nearly paying them enough to make a proper living. So more or less re-create the current status quo in latin-american banana farming but now in africa...

        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by BenSchuarmer (922752)

          That's not quite true. Cavendish bananas are the Wonder Bread of bananas. Most people who have tried other varieties think they're a bland shadow of what bananas should be.

          On the other hand, they're easy to grow and ship in large quantities. They're the only variety that you can harvest, ship half way around the world, and have then all ripen at the same time (right after they get to your local megamart).

      • by vidarh (309115) <vidar@hokstad.com> on Monday June 02, 2008 @07:28AM (#23625183) Homepage Journal
        Go to your local African food store and ask for Plaintain. Eat it (note that Plaintains are usually cooked first). Now you see why this is not going to be a problem.

        Being married to an African woman (Nigerian to be precise), I've had the misfortune of tasting Plaintain, and while I don't mind most of her food (it's usually either too bland and uniformely textured or too spicy for me, but generally edible), with Plaintain I see no redeemable qualities.

        It's a very acquired taste, as a lot of African staple food, and it's certainly no replacement for the types of Banana exported to the west.

        • by i.r.id10t (595143)
          MMmmmm... tostones (green plaintains, fried, then smashed, then fried again), maduros (pan fried ripe plaintains), mofongo (greenish plantains smashed up with chunks of bacon and chicken broth)... mmm... plantains.

          Of course, this is from my Puerto Rican wife - are the African plantains the same ones with the same possibilities?
        • by vorpal22 (114901) on Monday June 02, 2008 @09:07AM (#23625851) Homepage Journal
          Then you've only had plantains one of the two ways in which they're eaten. I agree that green plantains aren't my cup of tea. In my opinion they're like overly firm and starchy potatoes with a hint of banana flavouring to them. After a week of traveling Panama, I never wanted to see them again.

          However, if you let plantains ripen until they're black (at which point, they're still perfectly edible, unlike bananas) and then peel them, cut them into long slices, and cook them in butter, they're incredibly sweet and delicate.

          More in line with the original post, there are several varieties of bananas that I find much more delicious than the Cavendish variety. I've had the pleasure of eating several other varieties while abroad that I really enjoyed; for example, apple bananas have got a firmer, more flavourful meat to them, and I strongly prefer them to Cavendish. Cavendish bananas, although I love them, can be a bit dull tasting and mushy.
        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by metlin (258108)
          Slice off the skin of a plantain, cut it into slices and leave the slices in some curried, salt water for a few hours.

          Take it out, add some ginger and spices and oil and fry the plantains with some cilantro and coriander.

          Voila! You've one of the best south Indian delicacies - plantain curry - which is usually eaten with rice and some sauce/yogurt on the side.
    • by mangu (126918) on Monday June 02, 2008 @07:26AM (#23625169)

      more genetic variation means more resistance to the weakness of monoculture

      I live in Brazil where there are many types of bananas available. Any supermarket has at least three different types. Just off my head, I can name at least six types of Brazilian bananas: Ouro ("gold"), Prata ("silver"), d'Agua ("water"), Maçã ("apple"), Nanica ("dwarf"), da Terra ("earth").
      • by beadfulthings (975812) on Monday June 02, 2008 @07:39AM (#23625233) Journal
        Somebody with points should mod your post up as "interesting." I lived in the Far East when I was a child and remember the same thing--at least three readily available bananas with different characteristics--one yellow, one that was green in color even when ripe, and one that was reddish, kind of small, and intensely sweet.
      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by mwanaheri (933794)
        So true. If I remember correctly, Uganda has about 40 different kinds of banana. Not all of them are for eating, but still the variety is pretty big. Except for those which are for cooking, most bananas aren't as big as we are used to get them, but certainly more tasty.
        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by metlin (258108)
          Tell me about it.

          Growing up in India, I remember all the different varieties and flavors - they came in pink, red, yellow, green, violet/purple etc, and in all shapes and size (ridiculously small ones to *huge* ones). And they all tasted very distinctly different from one another and were quite delicious.

          In the US, all fruits taste the same to me, and bananas are so flavorless that I've stopped eating them altogether.

          Hell, you even had varieties of plantains that could be used in several spicy dishes, and
        • by RealErmine (621439) <commerce&wordhole,net> on Monday June 02, 2008 @10:56AM (#23627003)

          If I remember correctly, Uganda has about 40 different kinds of banana. Not all of them are for eating...
          Indeed, some are for dueling.
  • According to Banana.com [banana.com] there are over 300 different species of bananas, not all edible. I'm fairly certain that not all the edible species will be susceptibe to the blight. This might actually be a good thing in the long run as different species have different flavors and textures. They may even be better for us from a nutritional perspective than the Cavendish. The growers will need to adapt if the blight can't be stopped or contained.
  • Seriously people? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Netochka (874088) on Monday June 02, 2008 @06:02AM (#23624809)
    This story pops up every 6 months or so (I guess not here, but in general)... Has no one else heard about this banana scare story about 10 times before?? There's even a snopes article about it. Banana Extinction [snopes.com]
    • by forgotten_my_nick (802929) on Monday June 02, 2008 @06:21AM (#23624891)
      Your correct. But the US Media is running out of things to scare the people about.

      The article is less to do on bananas going extinct then rather trying to sell GM crops to the public.
  • Hmm. (Score:5, Informative)

    by ledow (319597) on Monday June 02, 2008 @06:07AM (#23624829) Homepage
    Single, cloned fruit, unable to reproduce except by human intervention, with identical genetic structure in virtually all examples, cloned and distributed worldwide for decades is susceptible to the same attacking fungus that attacked the previous single, cloned fruit with identical genetic structure, but which has mutated slightly (my conjecture) in order to attack it's replacement.

    And all because people don't like seeds in their fruit? (I would guess this isn't true, most probably people wouldn't really care much anyway, given that the fruit has an inedible skin too and a lot of popular fruits have seeds).

    It's hardly surprising, it's only "catastrophic" because we've deliberately propogated a single, genetically-identical (and I would hazard "faulty", due to it's inability to reproduce) plant over and over and over again.
  • by draxredd (661953) on Monday June 02, 2008 @06:09AM (#23624841)
    think of the monkeys !
  • Call DK (Score:4, Funny)

    by cybereal (621599) on Monday June 02, 2008 @06:14AM (#23624857) Homepage
    All I can think of is the cave at the beginning of the first level in Donkey Kong Country for SNES. When you enter the cave, DK sees that his banana pile is all gone and is sad.

    Clearly this is a viral commercial for the next DK Country! DK Country Wii: Panama Disease Adventure!
  • by DingerX (847589) on Monday June 02, 2008 @06:16AM (#23624863) Journal
    So, was granpa's banana more slippery? 'Cos that would explain their widespread use as comic devices in the pre-television era. (And, no, I never thought about asking Grandma about Granpa's banana, codenamed "Big Mike." Pervert.)
    • by ThreeGigs (239452) on Monday June 02, 2008 @07:20AM (#23625131)
      So, was granpa's banana more slippery?
      Actually, that's a slightly hedged 'yes'.
      Grampa's banana had a thicker, more durable skin, in addition to being larger than the bananas we youngun's know so well.
      The other reason it's so popular as comic relief is because it actually was a real hazard back around 1915-ish. As a 'portable' fruit, they were handy to carry anywhere, and without streetcorner trash cans, the peels got tossed on the sidewalk as often as not. And considering bananas are (and were) the most popular fruit in the US (almost twice as popular as the good ol' apple), it really was a normal hazard. The Boy Scout handbook of 1914 actually listed removing a banana peel from the sidewalk as a 'good deed', it was that common an occurence.

      As a side effect though, it *did* start many cities putting trash cans on busy streets, and enacting littering laws.
      • by dyslexicbunny (940925) on Monday June 02, 2008 @11:21AM (#23627319)
        Funny enough, I almost had an incident about a year ago with the current bananas. I was walking home from campus and my foot slipped out from under me. I almost took a spill but managed to regain composure. Turns out it was a decomposing banana that the trash guys had happened to knock onto the ground.

        I had to sit down because I was laughing so hard. I never expected to ever slip on a banana peel in my life time. I laughed ever harder when I remembered I saw the banana in the morning walking to campus and thought 'Silly banana peels. You just aren't so effective of a threat anymore.' Watch out - those guys are a busted ankle or hip just lying in wait.
  • by Arancaytar (966377) <arancaytar.ilyaran@gmail.com> on Monday June 02, 2008 @06:20AM (#23624881) Homepage
    We have no bananas today!
  • by stormguard2099 (1177733) on Monday June 02, 2008 @06:21AM (#23624893)
    I know it's against the rules but if you RTFA the interesting part isn't about the blight spreading through the bananas. As others have posted this is not something that sprang up over night, it's been coming for quite a while now.

    The truly interesting part is that the banana companies in S. America still don't see this as a problem. TFA says that in their anual summaries they don't even mention this disease much less list it as a threat. I think the issue is much more about these companies' failure to act before it's too late than that nature is running its course.
  • by Big Jojo (50231) on Monday June 02, 2008 @06:25AM (#23624907)

    Having traveled in some tropical countries, one of the things I most remember about their fruits are the sheer NUMBER of different banana varieties. No monoculture. Your average roadside stand would have half a dozen varieties, and the one a mile down the road would have a few more. Tomorrow the mix would be different. And most of them would taste a lot better than the crap that's so widely available elsewhere!

    I for one will welcome our new polycultural bananalords.

    • There's one problem (Score:5, Informative)

      by Siener (139990) on Monday June 02, 2008 @07:18AM (#23625123) Homepage
      Unfortunately none of those dozens of varieties have the attributes that make the Cavendish banana by far the most successful and important fruit crop in the world:

      1. Long shelf life
      2. Very uniform and predictable ripening times

      That is why you can get bananas cheaply, even though they might be grown thousands of miles from where they are eventually sold.

      Most, if not all the other varieties are only viable crops when they are sold very close to where they were grown.

    • by value_added (719364) on Monday June 02, 2008 @08:09AM (#23625397)
      And most of them would taste a lot better than the crap that's so widely available elsewhere!

      I've done the same and I'll wholeheartedly agree. The only saving grace, at least for me, is that one can typically find plantain available in most supermarkets. Let them ripen (until black) in a paper bag, fry them, and add to a plate of black beans and rice with some Cuban-style coffee on the side, and Bob's (or maybe Fidel) yer uncle.

      As a side note, I do think the tendency for westerners to buy bananas out of habit is a disease. People have written essays and even books on why fruits and vetegables should be bought local, and then, only when in season. The idea of eating summer fruits when there's snow on the ground might be novel, but hardly appropriate, or interesting. Conversely, seeing a California supermarket in the middle of summer selling bananas (and their customers lining up to buy them) when just about every type of fruit is ripe for the picking is, well, no less than absurd.

      Me, I typically shop at farmer's markets, but that doesn't preclude me from noticing that the increasing reliance by the general public on cheap third-world produce (Walmart for the dinner table!) can and does have unfortunate side effects.
      • by Beyond_GoodandEvil (769135) on Monday June 02, 2008 @08:44AM (#23625649) Homepage
        As a side note, I do think the tendency for westerners to buy bananas out of habit is a disease. People have written essays and even books on why fruits and vetegables should be bought local, and then, only when in season.
        Strange that, I do think the tendency for westerners to tell people how to live is a far more virulent disease.
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by bgat (123664)

        The idea of eating summer fruits when there's snow on the ground might be novel, but hardly appropriate, or interesting.

        I'll grant you the "novel" and "interesting" parts, but not "appropriate". I don't see the point in limiting variety in my diet, particularly in the midwestern USA in the wintertime--- when the only locally-grown produce is snow!

        I hate a produce monoculture as much as the next guy, and I've even owned shares in a few local farmer's co-ops (and yes, their food does taste better when in season). But I'll take that along with my summer-fruits-in-wintertime disease anytime!

      • by flyingfsck (986395) on Monday June 02, 2008 @09:53AM (#23626301)
        Uhh, tropical fruit have no 'seasons'. Also, what is wrong about importing fruit from the southern hemisphere? Given that most of the southern hemisphere is water and most people live on the northern land mass, supplying food out of season to the north is a major and lucrative source of income to the southern countries.
      • by Moridineas (213502) on Monday June 02, 2008 @10:15AM (#23626537) Journal

        As a side note, I do think the tendency for westerners to buy bananas out of habit is a disease.
        Why is it a disease? I like bananas. Why should I not eat bananas? I understand that you want everyone to live according to your standards and morality, but really, why should I not eat bananas?

        People have written essays and even books on why fruits and vetegables should be bought local, and then, only when in season. The idea of eating summer fruits when there's snow on the ground might be novel, but hardly appropriate, or interesting.
        This is absolutely bonkers. My wife's family lives in Wisconsin. You want them to survive on local produce over the winter? You want them to hoard dry goods so they can eat 6 months out of the year? Not to mention the exciting selection of nutritional deficits that most of the world suffered from before cheap year round fresh food selections. Really, this type of judgmental viewpoint bothers me so much. I really see your "EAT THIS WAY OR YOU HAVE A DISEASE!" moralism as no different from right wingers who think homosexuality is a disease.

        Conversely, seeing a California supermarket in the middle of summer selling bananas (and their customers lining up to buy them) when just about every type of fruit is ripe for the picking is, well, no less than absurd.
        Are you just making this up as you go along? Watching people "line up" for bananas in a supermarket? Food scarcity hasn't exactly been a problem in America in a number of years, I would be very interested in where you've seen people "line up" to get bananas, while bypassing all other fruits.

        Me, I typically shop at farmer's markets,
        Good for you! We should all be more like you, thanks for holding yourself out there as an example of the Right Way to live!
  • by antifoidulus (807088) on Monday June 02, 2008 @06:28AM (#23624921) Homepage Journal
    What other animated emoticon can I use to signal that I have an erection?
  • by lysse (516445) on Monday June 02, 2008 @06:39AM (#23624967)
    Is anyone else wondering what exactly it was about this Big Michael guy that caused someone to name a large and tasty banana after him...?
  • I'm convinced that "Ant" doesn't have a job. Not only does he submit stories here, but also to Blues News EVERY day, also to VideoSift and other sites not to mention his own.

    So not only does he have to go out and actually find these stories to submit to all these different sites, he has to take the time to write a submission. And I don't think he's getting compensated for it...I mean, how would he?

    Would love to know the story behind "Ant".
  • Alaska Science Forum (Score:4, Informative)

    by v1 (525388) on Monday June 02, 2008 @07:33AM (#23625199) Homepage Journal
    The Alaska Science Forum [alaska.edu] did an article on this problem back in 1990. Unfortunately I haven't found the promised followup. This contains a lot more information than the wikipedia articles.

    Basically it involves information on why the bananas are hard to breed for a better strain. (they have no seeds) The Honduras Foundation for Agricultural Research has found way of crossbreeding in wild strains to produce seeds. Looks like it's slow going, but genetic mutation is pretty much the only way to engineer in resistance to new disease, and that will require seeds, not cuttings.

    I wasn't able to find any updates on the HFAR's progress. Anyone else have any luck?
  • by denton420 (1235028) on Monday June 02, 2008 @07:58AM (#23625345)
    "There is no cure, and nearly every banana scientist says..."

    Anyone else burst out laughing after reading the title of banana scientist? This picture came to mind...

    http://www.zenbutoh.com/charactergallery/images/gorilla-bananas.jpg [zenbutoh.com]
  • by jollyreaper (513215) on Monday June 02, 2008 @08:03AM (#23625371)
    But I've got a lovely bunch of coconuts....
  • by Starky (236203) on Monday June 02, 2008 @08:24AM (#23625503)
    While this might not seem so serious to consumers in the U.S., in fact the banana family (including plantains) is the 4th largest food staple crop in the world (or at least it was several years ago when I was researching the banana industry for a litigation matter) behind wheat, rice, and corn.

    Food for thought.
  • by ArhcAngel (247594) on Monday June 02, 2008 @08:35AM (#23625583)
    I'm holding off judgment until I hear what Sharon Stone has to say about this!
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by hansamurai (907719)
      The bananas had it coming to them. Karma anyone? They've been spinning out karts for far too long.

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