Bananas: Famous fruit faces fatal fungus
The devastating banana fungus has now spread to new parts of the globe.
Thu, Dec 19, 2013 at 04:02 PM
"There's always money in the banana stand." So said George Bluth, the patriarch on the cult-favorite sitcom, "Arrested Development." While Bluth was talking about the cash hidden inside the walls of his family's frozen banana stand, the saying has until now also applied to the worldwide banana market, which is worth billions of dollars a year. Unfortunately, that money in the banana market may not always be there.
The world's most popular bananas — the Cavendish cultivar variety — have come under threat from a fungus that is rapidly spreading around the world. Previously constrained to parts of Asia and Australia, the banana fungus has now appeared in Mozambique and Jordan. Neither country is one of the top 10 banana producing countries, but experts fear that the fungus could spread to India or Latin America, which would be disastrous for the worldwide market.
The news that the fungus had reached these new countries came over the past two months, creating alarm from the world's banana experts. "It's a gigantic problem," a banana breeder told Nature this week. Once the fungus takes hold in the soil, it is almost impossible to eliminate.
No one knows exactly how the fungus arrived in Mozambique or Jordan, but some people think it could have arrived with migrant workers who came to the countries from Asia to work on local plantations.
Bananas have a long history with varieties of the Foc fungus. A different strain all but wiped out the once-popular Gros Michel banana cultivar back in the 1950s. That particular strain is not a threat to Cavendish bananas, which replaced Gros Michel, but they are susceptible to the newest strain, called Foc-TR4. Cavendish bananas represent about 13 percent of worldwide banana sales. Other varieties may not be at risk from the fungus, but its spread would hurt farmers in many locations.
Authorities in Mozambique have reportedly taken quick action to prevent further plantations from being devastated by the fungus. They have quarantined the affected regions and destroyed infected plants.
And the fungus — which can be transmitted to a new location on just a tiny bit of soil — is not the only threat to bananas. Costa Rica's $500 million banana industry is currently in a state of national emergency after being hit by mealybugs and scale insects, which has affected as much as 20 percent of the country's crop. The bugs cause blemishes on the fruits, making them unsellable. The increased insect population has been blamed on climate change.
The worldwide banana market is estimated to be worth about $4 billion annually. Nearly 80 million tons of the fruits are grown every year.
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