Yes! We Have No Bananas? It Could Actually Happen

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Bananas
Simon Belcher/Alamy
By Mark Koba

Banana lovers take note: The world's supply of the fruit is under attack from a fungus strain that could wipe out the popular variety that Americans eat.

"It's a very serious situation," said Randy Ploetz, a professor of plant pathology at the University of Florida who in 1989 originally discovered a strain of Panama disease, called TR4, that may be growing into a serious threat to U.S. supplies of the fruit and Latin American producers.

"There's nothing at this point that really keeps the fungus from spreading," he said in an interview with CNBC.

While there are nearly 1,000 varieties of bananas, the most popular is the Cavendish, which accounts for 45 percent of the fruit's global crop -- and the one Americans mostly find in their supermarkets.

The Cavendish became a favorite in the 1950's because it was found to be resistant to strains of Panama disease that hit the then-preferred Gros Michel variety of banana.

But now the Cavendish, which makes up about 95 percent of global banana exports, is dying from the fungus strain Ploetz found. The strain has hit the banana crop in Asia, the Middle East and Africa. The worry is that it will spread to Central and South America -- where the U.S. gets the vast majority of its bananas.

The problem has gotten so bad according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, that countries that grow bananas have been warned to step up monitoring, reporting and prevention in order to tackle what it calls "one of the world's most destructive banana diseases, and threatens the income of millions of people."

According to the FAO, bananas are the eighth most important food crop in the world and the fourth most important food crop among the world's least-developed countries. Through trade and supply, bananas make up a global $8.9 billion trade industry.

Bananas are grown in more than 150 countries, which produce 105 million tons of fruit a year, while employing hundreds of thousands pf people. The U.S. is the top importer of bananas in the world at nearly 4 million tons a year. The European Union is a close second. The largest exporters of the fruit are Ecuador, the Philippines, Costa Rica, Guatemala and Colombia.

Panama disease, or Fusarium wilt as it's also called, has been around for decades and can strike crops such as tobacco and tomatoes as well as bananas.

The TR4 strain, while not a danger to humans, is found in the soil and can remain active for decades, but it cannot be fully controlled by fungicides. The best way to fight the disease, according Ploetz, is to prevent its spread, which includes avoiding movement of diseased plant materials and infected soil.

As for it coming to Central and South America, at least one analyst on the scene is not too worried at this point.

"I see a lot of people stressed ... and we're monitoring the situation, but I think it may be a bit overblown," said Lianne Zoeteweij, general manager of AsoGuabo, a banana farm cooperative in Ecuador.

"We have concern yes, but I think the warnings of bananas disappearing is too much," she said in a phone call with CNBC.

New banana needed?

The world banana crop also has been under attack for years from Black Sigatoka disease, a fungal leaf spot disease. Coupled with TR4, the diseases slowed world banana production by as much as 3.8 percent in 2012, from 2011, according to the FAO.

TR4 may not be in the Americas yet, but Costa Rica declared a "banana emergency" in December of 2013 because of an outbreak of insects that feed on the fruit that leave bananas edible but not suitable for exporting.

Ploetz said it may come down to developing a new variety of the fruit that's resistant to the TR4 strain, which could take years.

"Bananas won't go away and there are better tasting ones out there. But the Cavendish is under attack right now, and there's nothing to replace it," he said.


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108 Comments

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no1gum

This fungus has been known for decades, but as usual, the can was kicked down the road. There are solutions that do not have to involve chemical giants who are looking for any excuse to introduce GMO's everywhere. Since there will be a loss for affected growers, anyway, why not go a natural route anyway.

April 23 2014 at 3:33 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
kate

Why isn't Monsanto on this? Of course the bananas will be toxic after they are sprayed, but the fungus will be gone though, right?

April 23 2014 at 11:27 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
pdbliz

Does the government really think people believe this statement.???
But,,on the other hand,,,look at todays youth..........

April 23 2014 at 8:48 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
pdbliz

SOME PEOPLE DO NOT WORRY,,,THEY HAVE,,,..EBT CARDS.!!!!!!!...

April 23 2014 at 8:39 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
pdbliz

Another government control ,,,SCAM,!!!!!!

April 23 2014 at 8:36 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
joe

banana fama fo fana fee fi fo mana Next, the price of bananas goes sky high like all the other fruits already have, then the fungus mysteriously disappears, but the prices stay up.

April 23 2014 at 7:48 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
alfredschrader

You can eat plantains. There's a secret to this. Plantains have a genetic flaw. If you try to eat a plantain when it turns yellow, it's starchy like a potato. What you have to do is let the skin turn dark, then the fruit becomes a bright orange and is the sweetest banana you will ever eat.
And the best part ? Few people know this and plantains are inexpensive. So forget the fungus among us.

April 23 2014 at 6:24 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Jerry

I really don't see the value to bananas. After you skin them and throw the bone away, there's nothing left to eat...

April 23 2014 at 1:47 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Hollywood

Literally, this is Yellow Journalism

April 23 2014 at 12:53 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
tizzmine

STOP STOP MONKIEING AROUND.... :-)

April 23 2014 at 12:44 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply