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The plight of the banana

The world could run out of bananas.

Over the summer, reports suggested a banana-killing fungus known as Panama disease Tropical Race 4 (TR4) had reached Latin America and could spread, affecting crops sold to the United States and Canada. After having been detected in the Middle East, Asia and Australia, many experts were expecting the highly contagious fungus to reach the Americas within the next five years. However, Colombia discovered its first case early August, and some suggest Ecuador could be next. Even though this deadly fungus poses no threat to humans, the situation could be devastating for the crop, and for the thousands of farmers who rely on bananas for survival.

TR4 typically spreads at the rate of about 100 kilometers a year. Banana plants are asexual, which means the disease can spread more quickly through genetics. It spreads through human activity, on clothing and footwear, and can remain dormant in soil for decades. Most bananas we consume in Canada are from Latin and South America. Our top suppliers are Guatemala, Costa Rica,Colombia and Ecuador, and some experts expect most of these markets to be infected by the deadly fungus within the next few years. Bananas are an important food source for Latin Americans and also one of the region's most important exports.

No known fungicide or other treatment has proven to be effective against the disease. Given these crops grow in poorer regions of the world, support for research in plant science has not been a priority. Other than strict biosecurity measures, nothing can stop the disease from spreading further. To limit risks, banana growers are asking workers to clean their clothing as they enter the plantation.

Monoculture and the death of banana

Commercial plantations grow almost exclusively one clonal variety called the Cavendish--the type of yellow banana most Canadians are acquainted with. Cultivating a single crop is unsustainable, as the disease can spread much more rapidly. As a contrasting example, Canada is home to more 7,000 different varieties of apples. More cultivars, fewer risks.

Ironically, the Cavendish variety was created in the early 20th century to offset the spread of another disease. An earlier strain of Panama disease nearly eradicated the global supply of the Gros Michel banana. Chiquita and Dole switched production to a variety they knew to be resistant to Panama disease. That’s how the Cavendish was born. Almost half of all bananas around the world are Cavendish, which is known for its adaptability to large-scale production, and extended shelf life when being transported around the world. But now, companies have nothing in the pipeline to replace the Cavendish, which may explain why the industry is currently in a state of panic.

Going bananas for bananas

Meanwhile, in Canada, we go bananas for bananas. We import well over $600 million worth of bananas annually, and the average Canadian will consume more than 15 kilos of bananas per year. More than 9% of all fruits imported into Canada are bananas. Furthermore, bananas are portable, require no refrigeration, have a natural peel for food safety and are quite nutritious. Bananas have also survived the attacks of many dietary preferences. Few diets exclude bananas. What’s more, they have always been affordable, well, at least until now.

Bloomberg has reported the price for U.S. imported bananas are breaking records these days. The price exceeded $1200 per metric ton for the first time this year, and markets are expecting prices to rise further. At some point, this price increase will trickle down to retail and to customers in Canada and the U.S.

For the sake of the fruit itself, farmers need more cultivars. For its survival, banana breeding will be key moving forward. In fact, in the past few years, breeders have even been able to create an edible peel, but this type of banana costs $8. Great solution for our food waste problem, but it’s not the price point you want. So much work remains to be done. And if you think Canada should grow its own bananas, well, we’re already doing so. Canada Banana Farms in Ontario produces bananas, but on a very small scale. The Halifax Public Gardens also has bananas growing outside. Some reports suggest farmers in Saskatchewan, Alberta, and Quebec are also setting up their own tropical fruit greenhouses. Interesting projects, but it might be more worthwhile if Canada's plant scientists help Latin America with its breeding program.

Until Canada becomes a banana powerhouse, we continue to rely on imported fruits.  So, let’s hope our friends down south can figure out how to mitigate risks from TR4 with or without our help.

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