Sara Lil Middleton
Did you know that bananas don’t grow on trees1? Well, neither did I until a couple of years ago.
We hardly think about where our food comes from. We simply grab it off the supermarket shelves, put it in our shopping baskets and take it home. That is something 60 % of Brits are guilty of according to a recent survey2.
Back to bananas: I was also shocked to find out that bananas, my favourite post-gym snack, were threatened with extinction.
Bananas are, in fact, the world’s largest herb, native to Papua New Guinea, though it now grows in over 135 countries worldwide1. There are over 1000 varieties of bananas, but the variety we are most accustomed to eating in the West is the Cavendish1.
We still see plenty of banana boxes in the supermarkets, so they can’t really be going extinct, can they? Well yes, but it is a complicated story involving production methods, disease and climate change.
Bananas are grown in the tropics, with Latin America being the world’s largest exporting region3. In order to fulfil our increasing demand for bananas (we eat over 100 billion every year), they are grown as a single crop over a large area, known as a monoculture1. To do this, tropical forests are cleared to make way for large swathes of banana plantations, which squeezes the tropical plants and animals into smaller areas, but that’s a topic for another blog post…
While growing bananas in monocultures is economically efficient, it also causes major problems. Bananas are unusual for a major food crop in that they reproduce asexually. This is because they are sterile clones, resulting from a hybrid of wild species (Musa acuminate and Musa balbisiana) that early agriculturalists produced way back when4. The resulting hybrid tasted great but had lost its seeds, meaning it could no longer reproduce sexually. Since then, bananas have been propagated by taking baby banana offshoots (known as suckers) from the mother plant and planting them nearby.
The awkward sex life of bananas has meant that every single Cavendish banana you’ve eaten has been genetically identical to the next one. This also means they have high susceptibility to pests and diseases. There are a bunch of diseases banana scientists are worried about. Tropical Race 4, caused by a fungus, is seen as the major threat to the global banana industry. It’s already raised plantations to the ground in parts of Australasia and is spreading rapidly through Africa, and Latin America remains on high alert5.
This has happened before. In the 1940s our grandparents were eating another variety known as Big Mike, but it was quickly wiped out by Panama Disease6. Fortunately, back then we had a backup – the Cavendish.
Today, we have no backup, and banana apocalypse 2.0 is a real possibility.
Furthermore, climate change is set to make things worse, as rising temperatures and changing weather patterns will aid the spread of pests and diseases7. To add to this, bananas are still/increasingly grown in massive monocultures –breeding grounds for spreading disease – we are in real trouble.
I can always switch my post-gym snack, but for 400 million people around the world bananas are a staple food source or major source of income8, which presents a major food security issue.
Perhaps science will come to the rescue, or maybe it’s time to rethink the way we grow bananas? In any case, I am sure you won’t look down at your breakfast bowl the same way again.
- Banana Link. (2019). All about bananas. Available: http://www.bananalink.org.uk/all-about-bananas. last accessed 6/2/19.
- (2019). Where your fruits and vegetables are grown – from sweet potato to avocado. Available: https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/food-and-drink/vegetables-fruits-where-grown-avocado-sweet-potato-courgette-iceberg-lettuce-a8765291.html?fbclid=IwAR2EJdINLvy-mnXWM0fQ8jvii2O2hAQcCD0sOQydP-6f. Last accessed 6/2/19.
- World Stop Exports. (2019). Bananas Exports by Country. Available: http://www.worldstopexports.com/bananas-exports-country/. Last accessed 6/2/19.
- (2018). Musa acuminata. Available: http://www.promusa.org/Musa+acuminata. Last accessed 6/2/19.
- (2019). Tropical race 4. Available: http://www.promusa.org/Tropical+race+4+-+TR4. Last accessed 6/2/19.
- (2017). Gros Michel subgroup. Available: http://www.promusa.org/Gros+Michel+subgroup. Last accessed 6/2/19
- Rosenzweig, C., Iglesias, A., Yang, X.B., Epstein, P.R. and Chivian, E., 2001. Climate change and extreme weather events; implications for food production, plant diseases, and pests. Global change & human health, 2(2), pp.90-104.
- (2017). The global programme on banana fusarium wilt disease. Available: http://www.fao.org/3/a-i7956e.pdf Last accessed 18.2.19
“I am plant ecologist on the NERC Environmental Research DTP working across the Plant Sciences and Zoology Departments. I use biological characteristics of plants to measure how plant communities respond to different aspects of environmental change. I also have a keen interests in sustainable food production systems through my involvement with Bananageddon, a documentary film project on bananas (https://bananageddon.webflow.io and @banana_truth).”