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How GMOs Offer Unexpected Salvation from a Potential Banana Apocalypse

by Mark Hay

July 10, 2015
Illustration by Tom Eichacker

In case you hadn’t heard the news, bananas as we know them are swiftly dying. As it turns out, those big, curvy yellow fruit we see every day at grocery stores are all cloned descendants of the Cavendish banana, a cultivar deemed hearty and productive enough to evade disease, travel the globe, and still net farmers a profit. Composing 99 percent of commercially exported bananas, these bananas are the archetype of agricultural monoculture. After their ascendance in the 1950s, the Cavendish held out well for decades, until back in the ‘80s disease finally caught up with the ubiquitous breed. Now an especially brutal sickness called Fusarium Oxysporum Tropical Race Four (or, colloquially, Banana HIV thanks to its incurable potency), a soil-borne fungus, is ripping through the genetically identical plants of the global Cavendish supply.

Originating in Southeast Asia, the disease’s march was long, slow, and steady. But over the past decade or so, the problem suddenly jumped to Africa, Australia, and the Middle East. Many fear that soon it will spread to Latin America, where 82 percent of the world’s $8.9 billion-per-year banana supply is grown. (Some fear it may already be there, although major banana producers like Chiquita are downplaying any risk of the spread.) When it does eventually hit Central and South America, it could destroy a massive global industry and rewrite the landscape of fruit and nutrition in the Western world—countries like America buy more bananas than apples and oranges combined.

Usually, the birth of some new crop disease isn’t a layman’s concern. We have faith in the power of modern science to devise quarantines, treatments, or even new breeds of crops to maintain the status quo. But in the case of the banana, the world is shaking in its collective booties because we’ve seen Fusarium play out before. Tropical Race One (an ancestor of the current plague) wiped out the Gros Michel banana, the richer and creamier international banana of yesteryear, between in the first half of the 20th century, leading to the ascent of the Fusarium-resistant Cavendish.

Cavendish bananas. Image by Assumulator via Wikimedia Commons

In the intervening years, we’ve made no great leaps in tackling Fusarium (even some Cavendishes seem to be losing their resistance to Race One). Yet Fusarium has made great strides against us, mutating on and around Cavendish plantations in regions of intense genetic diversity, giving the disease a chance to adapt and infect the world’s various types of bananas. After finally evolving in these hotbeds of adaptation, the disease then found it easy to hopscotch around the globe, making quick work of the world’s genetically identical Cavendishes clones. The rise of this known bananapocalypse is raising serious questions about how best to escape the threat of monocultures. Namely, it’s pointing us towards the unpopular and ironic reality that perhaps the only way to escape bananageddon is through genetic engineering, usually seen as a culprit in the development of fragile monoculture systems in the first place.  

To most, the knee-jerk, logical solution to this Cavendish-Fusarium mess wouldn’t be genetic engineering—it would be diversifying banana crops. After all, the Cavendish rose to prominence in an era when international shipping was less efficient than it is today. Although the 1,000 other varieties of banana in the world are more fragile and less agriculturally productive than the Cavendish, it’s hard to believe that with a little effort we couldn’t develop new strains, shelling out a few extra bucks as consumers. After all, in recent years most other types of produce from apples to potatoes have managed to eke profitability from marketing the varied qualities of a much more diverse field of offerings.

In a rare moment of corporate serendipity, diversification might even get some traction with banana magnates. They’ve already lost a chunk of their profitability to quarantines and chemical treatments for other Cavendish-targeting diseases. And companies like Chiquita and Dole have promised never to delve into genetically modifying our mainstream banana—not on ethical grounds (and clearly not out of the standard fear that GMOs promote monoculture crops), but because they know people are squeamish about genetic modification these days. So for farmers and for our stunted palates, crop diversification seems, at first blush, to be the best and only solution to this dire agricultural crisis.

Four banana varieties. Image by TimothyPilgrim via Wikimedia Commons

Unfortunately though, digging a bit deeper into the realities of Race Four, it turns out that diversification, no matter how much of a financial blow producers and consumers are willing to absorb, just won’t be good enough. The only real solution (as Dan Koppel, author of 2008’s Banana: The Fate of the Fruit that Changed the World, has argued) is probably a mixture of diversification and GMOs. Because if we don’t at least partially lean on genetic modification to save bananas, we won’t just lose a major market, we’ll endanger hundreds of millions of lives in some of the world’s most nutritionally and economically fragile regions.

While banana exports are an $8.9 billion industry, the wider banana growing and consumption market is a $44.1 billion business (the fourth largest food crop market after milk, rice, and wheat). Farmers or regional markets consume 85 percent of the world’s banana crop, and in poor countries especially, they make up around a quarter of the nutritional intake for about 400 million people. Cavendishes are only 45 percent of this total, big-picture banana market— the vast bulk of bananas-as-sustenance are other incredibly diverse variants of the fruit.

At first, that sounds like a good thing. It means we already have experience cultivating (just not marketing and shipping abroad) dozens of cultivars of non-Cavendish bananas. But here’s the catch: the Race Four disease seems to have developed in Malaysia, the banana’s homeland and heart of its biological diversity. To oversimplify, that means that this new disease has developed to be the super killer of every banana resistance we have. As a result, this newest plague doesn’t just strike Cavendishes, but 70 percent of all banana variants, and seems capable of eventually wiping out not just the commercial export market, but 80 to 85 percent of all bananas. And now that the disease has, as of 2014, jumped to Mozambique, there’s a real risk that it could start to seriously impact the 227 million Africans who depend on bananas for their daily nutrition long before it starts to affect big commercial farmers and those of us eating Cavendishes in Western markets.

Red Bananas at a Guatemalan market. Image by Ekem via Wikimedia Commons

So despite the fact that this modern scourge was born of and spread through a monoculture, it seems that diversification can’t be the sole solution. Nor can we rely on the development of prophylactics, grope-in-the-dark breeding of new varieties, or even quarantines (Race Four can travel dormant in even a small clump of earth on a worker’s boots for ages). Instead most researchers seem to believe that our best bet for rapidly halting the spread of the disease is genetic modification. Since 1994, we’ve had some success modifying Cavendishes in labs and on test farms, and over the past four or five years researchers have managed to engineer Cavendishes and other bananas with a promising resistance to Race Four as well.

In fact, some hope that we might be able to use genetic engineering to revive a disease-resistant Gros Michel. That, despite typical arguments that GMOs (beyond being icky or unholy) promote the perpetuation of monocultures, could be a boon for diversification. If we can use genetic engineering to save the Cavendish and other banana variants, we’ll not only be buying ourselves time against market collapse and nutritional disaster. We’ll also potentially be able to revive or foster the marketability and profitability of other cultivars. GMOs, in this particular case, are probably one of the greatest friends of crop diversification and future food security that we have. And if that’s true for bananas, it may be true of other crops as well. It’s a bitter pill to swallow, given society’s disdain for GMOs. But to preserve the Cavendish, the banana at large, and the millions of lives and livelihoods they are tied to, as a society we might just have to learn to accept a genetically modified future for our fruit.

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How GMOs Offer Unexpected Salvation from a Potential Banana Apocalypse