The National Digest

Banana Industry Hit With Disease In Colombia: US On Alert

The arrival of the disease is bringing back worries about the world’s dependence on a single type of banana, the Cavendish.

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LA GUAJIRA, Colombia – It might not be obvious at the supermarket, but the banana industry is fighting to protect the most popular variety of the fruit from a destructive fungus.

A disease that ravages banana crops has made its long-dreaded arrival in Latin America, the biggest exporter of the crop. That’s reigniting worries about the global market’s dependence on a single type of banana, the Cavendish, which is known for its durability in shipping.

For years, scientists have said big banana companies like Chiquita and Dole would eventually need to find new banana varieties as the disease spread in countries in Asia and elsewhere. Then this month, the fungus was confirmed in Colombia, one of the top exporters in Latin America, prompting officials in the country to declare a state of emergency.

Banana industry watchers say it’s more proof the Cavendish’s days are numbered, but that there’s still plenty of time to find alternatives.

“I don’t think it’s going to impact the availability of the Cavenidsh in supermarkets anytime soon,” said Randy Ploetz, a retired scientist from the University of Florida who studied tropical plant diseases.

Containers full of bananas for export are stacked in the port of Santa Marta, Colombia, Thursday, Aug. 22, 2019. For years, scientists have said big banana companies like Chiquita and Dole would eventually need to find new banana varieties as the dreaded fungus that destroys banana plantations spread in countries in Asia and now in Colombia. (Photo: Fernando Vergara, AP)

Bananas are also hard to breed, and finding varieties suited to global commerce isn’t easy. In addition to being productive, Cavendish plants yield bananas that can survive the trip from warm climates to far-flung supermarkets, without ripening too quickly.

Still, history has shown the risks of relying on a single banana variety. Not that long ago, the world market was ruled by another banana, the Gros Michel, aka the Big Mike. Experts say it was even easier to ship than the Cavendish, and sweeter (though others contend it tasted similar). Either way, the Gros Michel was ravaged by the 1950s by an earlier strain of the disease now stalking the Cavendish.

In Asian countries hit by the Tropical Race 4 disease, coping strategies have included planting less susceptible Cavendish varieties or moving to uninfected farmland, according to Ploetz. But those varieties aren’t as productive and still eventually succumb to the fungus, which can survive in soil for decades. Growers will also eventually run out of uninfected land.

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