Monday, 6 October 2008

Banana's split

Did you know that if you are my age or older the bananas you had as a child tasted different to today’s bananas? Indeed, interestingly I recall very few bananas when I was young – they were certainly not a common fruit in our house though bananas and custard was an occasional dessert. The reason is explained in a widely read and frantically e-mailed New York Times story that has opened many new eyes to a horticultural disaster anticipated for many years: the commercial extinction of the Cavendish banana. Dan Koeppel's warning is right on target:

“By sticking to [a] single variety, the banana industry ensures that all the bananas in a shipment ripen at the same rate, creating huge economies of scale. The Cavendish is the fruit equivalent of a fast-food hamburger: efficient to produce, uniform in quality and universally affordable.

But there’s a difference between a banana and a Big Mac: The banana is a living organism. It can get sick
[mind you, I’ve seen some pretty sick Big Macs], and since bananas all come from the same gene pool, a virulent enough malady could wipe out the world’s commercial banana crop in a matter of years.

This has happened before. Our great-grandparents grew up eating not the Cavendish but the Gros Michel banana, a variety that everyone agreed was tastier and easier to peel. But starting in the early 1900s, banana plantations were invaded by a fungus called Panama disease and vanished one by one. Forest would be cleared for new banana fields, and healthy fruit would grow there for a while, but eventually succumb.

By 1960, the Gros Michel was essentially extinct and the banana industry nearly bankrupt. It was saved at the last minute by the Cavendish, a Chinese variety that had been considered something close to junk: inferior in taste, easy to bruise (and therefore hard to ship) and too small to appeal to consumers. But it did resist the blight.

Over the past decade, however, a new, more virulent strain of Panama disease has begun to spread across the world, and this time the Cavendish is not immune. The fungus is expected to reach Latin America in 5 to 10 years, maybe 20. The big banana companies have been slow to finance efforts to find either a cure for the fungus or a banana that resists it. Nor has enough been done to aid efforts to diversify the world’s banana crop by preserving little-known varieties of the fruit that grow in Africa and Asia.”

There are other bananas in the world but no one has put enough effort into ensuring they are preserved and finding if any are resistant to the disease. And none of them is widely cultivated so, even if a disease-resistant one were found, if the Cavendish goes offline, it'll be a long, banana-less age in which scarcity ensures that two of my favourite deserts – bananas in custard and the banana split – are forgotten entirely.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments are always welcome.