Agriculture

Scientists Warn Bananas May Face Extinction Due to Lack of Genetic Diversity

According to the Produce Marketing Association, bananas are the most commonly purchased fruit in the United States. A whopping 75% of Americans eat this yellow work of nature. 

However, experts are worried about their survival due to a lack of genetic diversity among the most popular variant known as the Cavendish variety which allows for a serious vulnerability to disease, specifically Panama disease. 

To keep bananas seedless, Cavendish banana trees are selectively bred using rhizomes from existing trees to grow what are known as banana pups. 

On the plus side, the bananas we buy from the store do not have seeds, but this method of restricting bananas to only one genetic makeup creates a problem that you do not find in nature. Due to a lack of genetic diversity, if one tree is vulnerable to a disease, it means that every tree is vulnerable as well. 

Because of this, scientists are worried that Panama disease, which is wreaking havoc on fruit trees in Asia, could soon wipe out the world’s supply of bananas if it is able to spread. 

However, as noted by the Daily Star, experts say “a special breed found in Madagascar could hold the key to keeping them alive.” 

“It [the Madagascar variant] doesn’t have Panama disease in it, so perhaps it has genetic traits against the disease… We don’t know until we actually do research on the banana itself, but we can’t do the research until it’s saved.” – Richard Allen, Senior Conservation Assessor at the Royal Botanic Gardens 

Although the Madagascar banana is not “suitable for eating,” researchers “hope to create a new type of banana through cross-breeding.” However, only five of these trees are known to exist and they are under threat by logging, fires, and farming. 

When presented with the story, one Facebook commenter said “At $$3$$ a KG I don’t believe that supermarkets will ever let this happen,” referring to the cost incentive that grocery stores have to continually stock the popular Cavendish bananas. 

Are GMO Bananas Around the Corner? 

Although not explicitly stated, Allen alludes to a possible GMO solution to this dilemma, giving an opportunity for the biotech industry to capitalize on the vulnerability of Cavendish bananas by offering a solution through genetic modification rather than selective breeding. 

According to Organic Hawaii, several genetically-modified varieties of banana are currently being developed around the world and some have already been approved for experimental growth in Hawaii, Israel, Australia, and Uganda. 

As the biotech industry ventures into new agricultural territory, they seek to create a “vitamin enhanced ‘super banana’,” which is engineered to have higher levels of vitamin A and is set to launch in Uganda by 2020, reports RT 

“The consequences of vitamin A deficiency are dire with 650,000-700,000 children worldwide dying…each year and at least another 300,000 going blind.Professor James Dale 

Although giving people in need better nutrition is admirable, the problem is that GMO crops remain genetically monotonous and therefore do not have the dynamics to avoid future disease without further modification. 

Another argument which is commonly made against GMOs is that as the biotech industry develops their own variants, they can license them out, creating a situation where the company decides how much is produced, where, and when. 

Whatever the situation may be, talk of a possible Cavendish extinction is nothing new. In 2016, BBC writer Duncan Leatherdale wrote an article titled the imminent death of the Cavendish banana and why it affects us all. 

“To carry on growing the same genetic banana is stupid… It is necessary that we improve the Cavendish through genetic engineering but parallel to that we must be finding genetic diversity in our breeding programmes.” – Dr. Gert Kema, Wageningen University and Research Center 


This article (Scientists Warn Bananas May Face Extinction Due to Lack of Genetic Diversity) originally appeared at PhillipSchneider.com and may be re-posted freely with proper attribution, author credit, and this copyright statement.

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