Going bananas for a threatened fruit

A deadly fungus is spreading all over the world, so we can expect to pay more for bananas. But our world-class scientists could help solve the problem

Sylvain CharleboisThe world could run out of bananas.

Reports this summer suggest that a banana-killing fungus, Fusarium TR4 or the Panama disease, has reached Latin America. And it could spread, affecting crops sold in the United States and Canada.

After having been detected in the Middle East, Asia and Australia, many experts were expecting the highly-contagious fungus to reach the Americas within the next five years. However, Colombia discovered its first case in early August and Ecuador could be next.

Even though this fungus poses no threat to humans, the situation could be devastating for the crop – and for the thousands of farmers who rely on bananas for survival.

Fusarium TR4 typically spreads at a rate of about 100 km a year. Banana plants are asexual, which means the disease can spread more quickly through genetics. It spreads through human activity, on clothing and footwear, and can remain dormant in soil for decades.

Most bananas consumed in Canada are from Latin and South America. Our top suppliers are Guatemala, Costa Rica, Colombia and Ecuador. And some experts expect most of these regions to be infected by the deadly fungus within the next few years.

Bananas are not only an important food source for Latin Americans, they’re also one of the most important exports out of the region.

No known fungicide or other treatment has proven effective against the disease. Given that these crops grow in poorer regions of the world, support for research in plant science hasn’t been a priority. Breeding bananas is also extremely difficult and expensive, due to their botanical nature.

Other than strict biosecurity measures, nothing can stop the disease from spreading further. Banana growers are taking steps, asking workers to clean their clothing as they enter the plantation, to limit risks.

The crop suffers from what’s known as monoculture. Commercial plantations grow almost exclusively one clonal variety, called the Cavendish. This is the type of yellow banana most Canadians are acquainted with. With similar genetics, monocultures are always unsustainable, as the disease can spread much more rapidly. As a contrast, Canada is home to over 7,000 varieties of apples. More cultivars, fewer risks.

Ironically, the Cavendish variety was created in the early 20th century to offset the spread of another disease. An earlier strain of Panama disease nearly eradicated the global supply of the Gros Michel banana. Chiquita and Dole switched to a variety they knew to be resistant to Panama disease. That’s how the Cavendish was born.

Almost half of all bananas around the world are Cavendish, which is known for its adaptability to large-scale production and extended shelf life for transportation around the world.

But companies have nothing in the pipeline to replace the Cavendish, which may explain why the industry is in a state of panic.

In Canada, we go bananas for bananas. Bananas are a major staple in our diets. We import well over $600 million worth of bananas annually and the average Canadian consumes more than 15 kg of bananas a year. More than nine per cent of all fruits imported here are bananas.

Bananas are also adapting well to modern food inclinations. They’re portable, can be eaten anywhere, require no refrigeration, have a natural peel for food safety, require no plastic wrapping and are quite nutritious.

Bananas have also survived the attacks of many dietary preferences. Few diets exclude bananas.

And they’ve always been affordable – until now.

Bloomberg reports that the U.S. prices for imported bananas are breaking records due to diseases. The price exceeded $1,200 a tonne for the first time this year and market analysts expect prices to rise. At some point, retail prices will start to reflect these higher farm-gate prices.

But don’t expect to run out of bananas soon. Chiquita and Dole have too much to lose for that to happen. Several plantations are already under quarantine and will be protected by highly-restrictive biosecurity measures.

So bananas will continue to be sold in Canada and the U.S., but you can expect your budget to suffer in the months to come because of what’s happening to the Cavendish variety.

For the sake of the fruit, farmers need more cultivars. For its survival, banana breeding will become crucial. In fact, in the past few years, breeders have even created an edible peel – although this banana costs $8 each. It’s a great solution for our food waste problem but it’s not the price point you want.

So much work remains.

And if you think Canada should grow its own bananas, well, we’re already doing so. Canada Banana Farms, in Ontario, produces bananas – on a very small scale. The Halifax Public Gardens started growing bananas this year. Reports suggest farmers in Saskatchewan, Alberta and Quebec are setting up tropical fruit greenhouses.

These are interesting projects, but more worthwhile might be Canada’s world-renowned plant scientists helping Latin America with its breeding program.

For now, Canada will continue to rely on imported fruits. So let’s hope our southern friends can figure out how to mitigate risks from Fusarium TR4, with or without our help.

Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University, and a senior fellow with the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies.

© Troy Media


bananas fusarium tr4 fungus

The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

You must be logged in to post a comment Login