Bananas don’t usually figure much in the news. True, there were a few occasions in recent years when the ubiquitous yellow fruit slipped off the health and food pages and onto Page 1. Mostly those stories concerned the long-running dispute between the United States and the European Union over barriers in the banana trade — a confrontation that sorely tested the World Trade Organization’s credibility as a mediator. But that was the banana’s longest stint in the limelight, unless you count the Bananas in Pajamas boom that dates back to the early ’90s. For the most part, the world’s second most popular fruit (after tomatoes) keeps a pretty low profile.
Then on Jan. 15 came some news that bounced the banana right back into the headlines. According to Britain’s New Scientist magazine — admittedly not the top banana in the news business but a respectable source nonetheless — a European expert believes that the fruit could actually be threatened with extinction inside of 10 years. That item definitely caught people’s attention. Headline writers, in particular, went bananas at the prospect, coming up with a whole bunch of bad jokes: “Yes, We Will Soon Have No Bananas,” “Bananas Could Split for Good” and “Bananas on the Skids.”
Seriously, what was Dr. Emile Frison, of the French-based International Network for the Improvement of Banana and Plantain, or INIBAP, talking about? Simply this: Because the edible banana, as opposed to the inedible wild variety, is seedless and sterile, it lacks the genetic diversity that could give it resistance to pests and diseases. Two diseases in particular — Panama disease, which wiped out an older banana variety in the ’50s, and black Sigatoka — are mutating as fast as scientists can produce new fungicides. Unless scientists resort to biotechnology and genetic manipulation, Dr. Frison warned, the Cavendish, the global standard in bananas, is likely to disappear.
It doesn’t seem possible, somehow, to imagine the world without bananas. Aren’t they everything one could want in a fruit? (Just ignore those pedants who insist that the banana is a herb. It isn’t sold in little jars, is it?) Bananas come in their own bright, clean packaging, which conveniently doubles as a holder. They peel like a dream. They lack annoying seeds or pits and never leave you sticky. They look wonderful sitting in a bowl by the window, the color of sunshine. They’re summer in a skin, available all year round. They’re astonishingly cheap. And to cap it all off, they’re good for you — crammed with nutrients and capable, dietitians say, of warding off ailments from stroke to heartburn.
In developing countries, the banana is even more important. For a half-billion people in Asia, Central America and Africa, it is a staple, comparable in some places to the potato in pre-famine Ireland. INIBAP cites studies showing that whereas people in developed countries eat on average 11 kg of bananas a year, people in some African nations consume as much as 250 kg a year. The banana is also a major export food, providing a livelihood for millions. (Where do you think the phrase “banana republic” originated?) It’s unthinkable that such a precious commodity could be allowed to vanish.
The humdrum truth is, it probably won’t. No one has disputed Dr. Frison’s grim assessment of the standard banana’s plight: The Cavendish is indeed in trouble. But Taiwanese researchers say several varieties are grown on their banana-rich island and that that they actually bred a new, disease-resistant variety from a rare seed last September. Honduran scientists report having done the same. Even Dr. Frison was careful not to associate himself with the most alarmist headlines last week. “(The suggestion of) extinction is a little bit exaggerated,” he said.
The Belgian scientist may have been engaging in a clever bit of gamesmanship all along. It turns out that he is part of a consortium working to sequence the banana’s genetic blueprint as a prelude to developing a fungus-resistant variety, primarily for the hard-hit African countries. And, according to the science magazine Nature, the team’s work has been impeded by a lack of support from multinational producers, who are fearful that consumers will reject a genetically modified banana, especially in the big Japanese and European markets. It’s not hard to see how the recent uproar helped the team’s cause, putting the onus on producers to prove that non-GM methods will work in time to head off the devastation threatening banana crops worldwide. This doesn’t mean that what Dr. Frison said was wrong — far from it — but it does mean it was tied to an agenda.
One thing, at least, is clear. Whether it’s developed laboriously from rare seeds or modified from a wild, fungus-resistant variety, tomorrow’s banana may not look or taste much like today’s. Let’s hope it’s even half as good.
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