Six decades after a banana-killing fungus all but wiped out plantations across Latin America, a new strain threatens to destroy global harvests.I don't think that the risks of genetic homogeneity are limited to bananas. Oh, wait, that's in the article:
A type of Fusarium wilt appeared this year in Australia’s main banana-growing state after spreading to Asia and Africa. While the fungus has been around since the 1990s and has yet to affect top exporter Ecuador, Fresh Del Monte Produce Inc. called it a potential “big nightmare.” The United Nations says the disease threatens supply, and Latin American growers are taking steps to limit the risk.
The industry survived the demise of the top-selling Gros Michel banana in the 1950s by switching to a different variety, called the Cavendish. But this time, there’s no ready substitute. Americans now eat bananas almost as much as apples and oranges combined, and are the biggest buyers in an export market valued at more than $7 billion.
“We don’t have anything that can replace the Cavendish,” said Gert Kema, a plant research leader at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, who studies banana diseases.
Part of the problem is the way the market evolved more than a century ago, relying on a single breed rather than several varieties.
In 1870, the founder of what became Chiquita Brands International Inc. imported 160 bunches of bananas from Jamaica to the U.S. that he sold at a profit, kicking off an American industry built around perishable tropical fruit from overseas that competes with cheap, locally grown apples.
A lack of plant diversity isn’t unique to bananas. After a history in which more than 7,000 species were cultivated for human consumption, today just four crops -- rice, wheat, corn and potatoes -- are responsible for more than 60 percent of human energy intake, the UN’s Food & Agriculture Organization estimates.
The history of the fruit is fascinating. And disturbing.