Bananas Are Fighting a Pandemic of Their Own

There's a battle raging to save the world's favorite tropical fruit.

banana processing plant

Rainforest Alliance (used with permission)

The next time you're in the grocery store, take a moment to admire the bananas. Don't take them for granted. While we humans have been engrossed in a fight against COVID-19, those ordinary-looking fruits have been fighting a pandemic of their own. A virulent disease called Tropical Race (TR4) has been slowly and steadily decimating banana farms around the world. 

TR4 (also known as Panama disease or fusarium wilt) is highly contagious, with no known treatment. A plant can hide signs of infection for up to a year, continuing to appear healthy until its leaves suddenly turn yellow and wilt. As the BBC reported, "In other words, by the time you spot it, it is too late, the disease will likely have already spread via spores in the soil on boots, plants, machines or animals." All that's left is to enforce the banana equivalent of COVID-19 prevention measures – disinfecting boots and preventing the movement of plants between farms, which is more or less the same as hand washing and social distancing – and hope for the best.

The disease would not be so catastrophic if banana production weren't a vast global monoculture, reliant on a single varietal of banana called the Cavendish. This makes the entire industry susceptible to rapid collapse, with little built-in resilience. Ironically, the Cavendish replaced another variety of banana called the Gros Michel that was destroyed by Panama disease in the mid-twentieth century. You would think we'd learned our lesson, but alas.

The world can't afford to lose bananas. They are the eighth most important food crop in the world, and the fourth most important crop in the least developed countries, so its loss would result in profound hardship for millions of people. Fortunately, there are efforts underway to fight the pandemic, but it's not an easy thing to do. There are different opinions on what needs to be addressed and so many people involved across vast tracts of the earth that it's challenging to coordinate, but here's a brief overview of what's being done.

Climate-Smart Agriculture

Healthier soil is less susceptible to disease, so it makes sense that improving farming techniques can help reinforce a banana farm against TR4. Bananas are a pesticide-heavy crop, with plants getting sprayed with fungicide between 40 and 80 times within a single growing season. This depletes the soil microbiota and weakens the plants for when TR4 strikes. 

Dan Bebber is an associate professor of ecology at the University of Exeter and part of the UK government-backed BananaEX program. He told the BBC that the best way to weather the TR4 pandemic is to change the way bananas are grown. In fact, organic banana farms have fared much better than conventional so far.

"Banana farms should be looking at adding organic matter, and perhaps planting seasonal crops between rows to increase shelter and fertility, using microbes and insects rather than chemicals as 'biocontrols' and leaving more wild patches to encourage wildlife. This may mean bananas cost more, but in the long term they will be more sustainable."

The Rainforest Alliance, an environmental NGO that advocates for sustainable and ethical farming practices, is working hard to promote climate-smart agriculture in an effort to make farmers more resilient in the face of climate change and pandemics like TR4. 

While the Rainforest Alliance (RA) does not expect producers to become organic, Leonie Haakshorst, its sector lead for banana and fruit, told Treehugger that RA always strives to limit the use of hazardous pesticides. "This type of strategy will avoid problems of resistance to pesticides or dependence on them in the long term and will enable a balance of the ecosystem."

Other climate-smart agricultural strategies promoted by the Rainforest Alliance include planting vegetative barriers and buffer zones, installing water-efficient systems for irrigation and packing of plants (including collecting and storing water for later use), and prioritizing organic fertilizers over chemical ones.

Sustainability Certification

Experts generally think that bananas are too cheap. When they cost as little as they do, it is difficult for producers to pay workers well, to invest in farming equipment and upgrade their techniques, and to protect themselves against TR4 using the methods described above. Better paid workers will also do a more thorough job of examining plants for signs of disease. 

In Bebber's words, "For years we have failed to take into account the social and environmental cost of bananas. It is time to start paying a fair price, not only for the workers and the environment, but the health of the bananas themselves."

How do we start paying more for bananas? If they're certified as sustainable or fairly-traded by a third-party organization like Rainforest Alliance or Fairtrade International, they will cost a bit more than conventional bananas – but if consumers understand that it means they're getting a better banana, many will be willing to pay for it. By extension, campaigns to educate the public about what's going on with bananas are desperately needed, too. 

Companies shouldn't be afraid to invest in sustainability certification, as it attracts conscientious consumers. The annual Sustainable Market Share Index released by New York University's Stern Business School revealed that sales of sustainability certified products increased seven times faster than non-certified products between 2015 and 2019, and have even continued to grow during the COVID-19 pandemic.

banana farmer
Rainforest Alliance (used with permission)

Biotechnology Research

Laboratories around the world are busy experimenting with gene-editing techniques to figure out how to make the Cavendish banana resistant to TR4. The most successful effort to date has been led by biotechnologist James Dale at the Queensland University of Technology, Australia. When TR4-resistant genes were found in a wild banana variety called Musa acuminata, originally from Malaysia and Indonesia, they were inserted into the Cavendish. So far results have been positive, but it will take several years for thousands of sample plants to grow and prove whether or not this method could bail out the entire Cavendish banana industry. 

Other researchers are hunting through tropical rainforests for wild bananas that are resistant to TR4 and could replace the Cavendish. The USDA's Agriculture Tropical Research Center, located in Puerto Rico, has found a few, but these tend to be full of seeds and unpleasant to eat, so they're working on cross-breeding with more edible varieties – another slow process that would be difficult to scale up.

Bebber summed up the biotech projects in a 2018 conversation with the Guardian: "What we are seeing is gene editing versus gene modification with gene editing working with the existing DNA and gene modification adding in DNA of different organisms."

Diversifying Bananas

Eating more than just Cavendish bananas would help the situation, as well. There are more than a thousand varieties of banana, most of which North American consumers never see or try, but making these more accessible and popular could reduce demand for a single type and encourage farmers to plant varied crops. They may not be as conducive to long-distance shipping as the Cavendish is, but they are sometimes available in smaller quantities and are well worth trying. Buy unusual bananas whenever you find them and ask local retailers to source them, if possible. You can see a list of different banana types here to get a sense for just how many are out there, all with unique tastes and textures.