No longer going bananas: plague may wipe out entire fruit

My daughters love bananas, especially Lorelei. She is four years old, which means there is much she doesn't like. She doesn't like fried chicken, or baked chicken, or any chicken unless they're in the form of chicken nuggets. She doesn't like hamburgers. She doesn't like lasagna or mushrooms or eggs. But among the few foods she loves that are nutritious, she does enjoy a good banana.

And now I'm reading that in possibly as soon as five years -- maybe as long as 30 -- there will be no bananas left. Wiped out. Finished. No longer on the Earth. Or at least no longer edible.

Johann Hari of The Seattle Post-Intelligencer wrote an interesting story recently about Panama Disease, a fungus that's been killing banana trees for about a century now. What's truly chilling is that the disease is getting stronger, and there is no cure.
(Incidentally, if you're really gripped with fear and full of interest in this, you should check out the book that Hari references, which came out on shelves several months ago, Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World by Dan Koeppel.)

So what is Panama Disease, and what's the problem?

Well, as noted, it's a fungus and was first reported in Australia in 1876. As best as I can decipher at a web page on Plant Management Network -- they get pretty heavy on the banana terminology -- and then wilting the leaves and eventually going to the youngest leaves. Eventually, the entire tree has dead or dying leaves.

There is no cure, and that's the big problem. It destroyed a banana called the Gros Michel, which was very popular for the first five to six decades of the 20th century. Banana packagers loved it. The Gros Michel had a thick skin -- bananas didn't bruise easily, so they were easy to pack in crates, and they didn't need much climate control.

I'm left wondering if the Gros Michel was slippery, since in black and white movies particularly, comedians are often slipping on banana peels. At any rate, the Gros Michel did make an impact on popular culture. For instance, according to a Wikipedia entry, the 1923 musical song, "Yes, We Have No Bananas," was inspired by a shortage of these Gros Michel bananas, also called "Big Mike" bananas, due to the Panama disease.

By 1960, the Gros Michel banana had been replaced by the Vietnamese Cavendish banana, the banana we have today. Still quite delicious, but apparently not as yummy as what our grandparents were enjoying.

The Cavendish banana had built up a pretty good resistance to Panama Disease, but according to Koeppel's book, which explains the history of the banana in-depth and how the term "banana republic" got its name, the fungus is back and stronger than ever.

It may take five years, or thirty, according to the article in the Seattle PI, but the banana as we know it is probably doomed. I think I'm going to pass on mentioning this to my four-year-old.

Geoff Williams is a business journalist and the author of C.C. Pyle's Amazing Foot Race: The True Story of the 1928 Coast-to-Coast Run Across America (Rodale).

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