6 Foods We Could Lose in an Outbreak

Weak foods leave empty plates

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The modern food industry likes consistency. Modern food and agricultural corporations operate on a huge scale, and that's where consistency matters. When it comes to the crops and animals that we eat, consistency means the variety gets the short straw — instead of growing multiple varieties of potatoes, for example, the industry relies on one or two primary strains. The few strains that are grown are susceptible to certain kinds of disease, and the results can be disastrous.

The Irish Potato Famine was caused by a disease called potato blight that swept through Ireland's farms, hitting the single strain of potatoes grown by most farmers. Up until the 1960s, the most popular banana in the world ate was the Gros Michel. It was all but wiped out by a fungal disease when we were forced to switch to the Cavendish.

It could happen again with a lot of different foods, and we don't need to lose a crop or animal for it to be lost to an outbreak. The Gros Michel didn't completely disappear, but it was wiped out enough for it to no longer be a commercially viable food. Here are six foods that we could conceivably lose in a disease outbreak. (Text: Shea Gunther)

Bananas

Photo: Suthat Chaithaweesap/Shutterstock

We've lost the banana before. In beginning of the 19th century, an outbreak of Panama disease swept through plantations growing the Gros Michel banana cultivar. By the 1960s, the Gros Michel was all but wiped out as a viable export crop. Luckily, banana scientists (what a job!) had another strain waiting in the wings, and the world quickly shifted to the Cavendish, the variety we eat today.

But the Cavendish is similarly susceptible to disease. Banana plants reproduce by cloning, so subsequent generations don't develop genetic diversity and an accompanying resistance to disease. In these days of increased global trade and travel, the Cavendish might be more vulnerable to an outbreak. Oddly enough, the culprit could be the same — Panama disease. A new strain of the soil disease has been found on banana plantations, and it's expected to reach South America in the next five to 10 years.

Turkey

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The turkey that graces most American tables for Thanksgiving and throughout the year is known as the broad-breasted white. It's a modern strain born of generations of breeding to be a fast-growing, fat-breasted, easy-to-raise butcher bird that is physically unable to reproduce — every white-breasted turkey born is a result of in vitro fertilization or artificial insemination. Modern-day factory turkey farms are crowded, dirty places in which birds are fed antibiotics to stay alive. If an especially virulent strain of bird flu or another disease were to evolve, it could quickly spread through the nation's turkey farms — and we'd find ourselves returning to the Pilgrim habit of eating eel for Thanksgiving.

Wheat

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Wheat is the third most cultivated grain on the planet, behind corn and rice. In 2007, we grew 607 million tons of it and turned it into all kinds of food products — bread, cakes, cookies, cereal, pasta, and even beer and vodka. It's also the target of the fungus Puccinia triticina, better known as wheat leaf rust. This fungal disease kills off affected leaves and causes the grain to shrivel up. A new strain called Ug99 was discovered in eastern Africa a few years ago and it has been wrecking havoc on wheat crops in Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia. Wheat rust spores travel with the wind, so it's not inconceivable that Ug99 could spread far beyond Africa and make the jump to Asia and North America.

Chicken

Photo: By Moonborne/Shutterstock

Today's chickens share a similar history with the turkey — they are a result of generations of breeding intended to make them easier to raise for food. A mere five chicken breeding corporations provide more than 95 percent of the world's birds, and a single breeding male bird can potentially sire up to 2 million chickens. This system works for big food and agriculture corporations that value consistency, but it could be potentially disastrous if a bad strain of virus pops up. As the world continues to lose wild bird species, the opportunity to inject new wild genetics into the breeding lines of food birds slowly slips away.

Cassava

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Americans don't eat much cassava (with the exception of tapioca), but it's a food staple elsewhere around the globe. The tuber, also called yucca or manioc, is grown around the globe but is most densely grown in equatorial Africa, South America and Asia. This nutrient-dense food is a staple for hundreds of millions of people and it's the crop of choice for countless farmers, particularly in Africa where most subsistence farmer grow it.

Cassava faces an uncertain future due to a germ called the African cassava mosaic virus, or ACMV. ACMV causes the cassava leaves to fall off and is spread by the whitefly and when affected plants are transplanted to new fields. The virus began as a genetic mutation somewhere in Uganda in the 1980s and is estimated to be spreading at a rate of 50 miles per year. It has already hit Rwanda, Burundi, the French-speaking Democratic Republic of Congo and the Republic of Congo.

Soybeans

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Soybeans have been grown in China for at least the last 5,000 years thanks to their nitrogen-fixing properties. In more recent times soy has become a major source of food for billions of people and livestock. Soy is high in protein and essential amino acids and is processed into many different products such as tofu, tempeh, miso, textured vegetable protein and soy sauce.

Soy is also one of the more genetically engineered and commercially controlled crops in history. The Monsanto corporation provides the seeds that grow 90 percent of the total U.S. soybean crop, leaving the industry's fields vulnerable to disease.