While the story of the Cavendish monoculture is a hugely remarkable one (I urge you to read the Dan Koeppel book if you are interested) and the instance of Cavendish domination is relatively recent, as the Gros Michel variety that preceded it was plagued by disease and left as economically unviable, it is important to understand that domesticated bananas don’t have seeds, or pollen and are effectively clones. This means that one banana that you eat today, is essentially exactly the same banana you may eat tomorrow or a year from now. This makes them an incredibly consistent product, but also enormously susceptible to disease — namely a virulent disease called Tropical Race Four (Tropical Race One wiped out the Gros Michel in the 1950s) that is spreading throughout the world and set to wipe out the Cavendish banana.
Most scientists say it is not a matter of “if” but “when” the Cavendish will be wiped out. (To be clear, the Cavendish, along with its predecessor the Gros Michel, are not, and will not be entirely extinct, but it will no longer be able to be grown as nearly as widely and therefore will not satisfy the world hunger for bananas.) So scientists are working on two fronts: to battle the ever-spreading Tropical Race Four disease and to genetically engineer a new super banana variety that will show resistance to such strains of disease.
The odds are that scientists will likely be successful in engineering a new variety of banana well before they are able to contain and cure the disease that is decimating banana plantations the world over. This sort of innovation will likely employ the use of, not just genetic engineering, but genetic modification (GM), while will undoubtedly raise the ire and concern of many consumers. But is it worth it to save the widely loved banana? (Hell, they are already radioactive.) Many scientists claim that because bananas are sterile clones to begin with, that there is little risk to other crops from GM experimentation because they are unable to cross-pollinate. Still, if science brings us a better and brighter banana, able to stand up to Tropical Race One through Four, isn’t it just a matter of time before another strain of disease attacks this monoculture? Shouldn’t the prospect of crop diversity be brought into the conversation? Or is the prospect of living without your daily banana too much of a price to pay?