Turns out there’s a picture perfect example of both sides of the earlier discussion. The Cavendish banana is doomed.
Side one – the danger. The cavendish is the genetic issue taken too far, and is both the basis and example of the worry Cassidy and PH raised. Basically, all of today’s bananas are clones. And the particular genetic plan is fatally vulnerable to something called Panama Disease – which is actually a fungus.
Further demonstrating how bad it could be, the disease and problem was discovered back in the 1900s – 1903-1905 time frame. The banana then was the Gros Michael. The solution would have been to grow and cross with other varieties – varieties with some to total resistance to the fungus. However, the corporate masters of United Fruit liked the Gros Michael, and had everything (and all possible production) running based on the Gros Michael, and decided there was a better (read cheaper and from their point of view easier) solution. They dumped tons of chemicals, they burned, they… failed. Oh – they planted new colonies in an attempt to escape the fungus, but refused (yes, it’s in writing) to do even the actions known to ensure the fungus didn’t hitch a ride – and so it came along. The Gros Michael is extinct – it left us in the 1960s.
They were saved by the Cavendish. The Cavendish was resistant to the fungus. And everything shifted to that version. The cavendish isn’t quite as Industrial Production Friendly as the gros michael was, but it’s still pretty good. And hey, the fungus isn’t a problem, right? Wrong. The corporations stuck to the same process – heavy monoculture (cloning) while avoiding crossing, and heavy dosing to keep the fungus in check.
The fungus mutated – evolution in action, the pieces of fungus that survived were those that managed to have some (and growing) resistance to the chemical bath. And recently the thresshold was crossed. Panama disease is back, and it’s killing the cavendish bananas on the banana plantations. In the really near future – less than five years, possibly – the banana we buy at the typical grocery store will be gone.
That is the worry of cloning. Monoculture. It creates a universal vulnerability. And when something starts on that vulnerability, it’s probably impossible to stop.
The other side of the discussion is the red and the manzano and the burro and some 260 other cultivars of banana. It is HARD to completely shut down the competing cultivars. And all of these have varying resistances to the fungus. We’ll probably lose the cavendish. No, we WILL lose the cavendish as we know it.
See, there are two, well, three routes being pursued. One is the investigation of ‘other’ cultivars to determine which, of those with high resistance, will best accomodate Industrial Production. (Knowing, of course, that they’ll have to make some changes for differences in ripening and such.)
The second is attempting to modify the Cavendish. That slips into genetic modification realms, which in turn hits the irony button pretty hard. GM – that “evil” – has a fair chance of saving something doomed by cloning. Largely by doing in a hurry what wasn’t done naturally. Of course, what results won’t be exactly the cavendish the generic US resident purchases at most local stores. But for most of those people, there’ll be no difference in taste.
That third route? Investigation of the fungus looking for ITS specific vulnerabilities. Since it’s a wild fungus and there are LOTS of variants I’m not expecting much success.
So, the Cavendish banana. Both sides of the discussion wrapped up in one yellow package. Lessons for everyone.