Bananas, like most of our foods, have been heavily modified over many years to better suit our tastes and needs. Even the bananas we are accustomed to right now are not even the same kind of bananas our grand- or great grandparents would have (possibly) had access to.
And the bananas are dying!
Big Mike was the banana of choice right up to the 1950s. The “Gros Michel” was the dominant type of banana until a very persistent fungus wiped out massive amounts of Big Mike banana plantations making the fungus-susceptible banana too high a risk to continue exporting. It wasn’t completely wiped out and is actually still grown and sold, although now predominantly to Asian markets. And it can still be affected by the fungus. While the fungus isn’t a health threat towards humans, the banana plants essentially wilt, dry and die. Which is a shame – the “Gros Michel” was apparently a much tastier version of banana – from the standpoint of the era. That is an important distinction, as we are now accustomed to a different type of banana and its taste. From our current banana taste-point, the “Gros Michel” apparently tastes like the artificial banana flavour the food industry uses. So while we think of artificial banana flavour as particularly fake, this is what bananas would have tasted like hadn’t the fungus come along. But Fusarium Oxysporum f.sp. cubense (Panama Disease) did and the pathogen, believed to have first developed in Southeast Asia, was first noticed in 1876 in Australian plantations.
The problem with banana cultivation is they are all clones.
Banana berries (covered previously) are technically clones – they’re not grown from seeds. The banana breeds as we know them develop through asexual reproduction – that is there is no pollen involved and no seeds. Instead the base of the plant eventually produces suckers that are cut off and replanted. That, in turn, makes all the bananas in the plantation genetically identical. And along comes a fungus, resistant to chemical or biological fungicides and wipes out the banana root, stem and all. It took over 50 years for the fungus to spread throughout the majority of the world’s banana plantations, but by the 1950s the devastation was complete.
Since the “Gros Michel” couldn’t be saved, focus turned to finding or developing a banana that was resistant to this fungus.
Enter the “Cavendish”. This is the banana we now now, cherish, eat and send by mail. The devastated banana plantations were quickly re-grown with “Cavendish” and banana exports exploded. The few drawbacks were quickly overcome – the taste difference is now mostly forgotten, and the quicker ripening of the “Cavendish” has been met with earlier harvesting and transporting procedures. Quoting the German cargo loss prevention insurance agency:
“For transport, bananas must be sound, clean, whole, fresh, free of foreign odors and taste, free of abnormal moisture and undamaged. The color of the fruits should correspond to ripeness grade 1. In addition, they must be free from rot and mechanical damage. The hands must be treated against comb or stalk rot with fungicidal paste.”
Once again though, the industry relied on a single, genetically identical, type of banana. And by the 1980s, the “Cavendish” plants were starting to show signs of rot and disease. As it turns out, the “Cavendish” remains naturally resistant to the strain of fungus that can kill Big Mike, but unfortunately not against other strains of the fungus. Once again, the start of devastation was first noted in Asia and Australia and while it has not yet reached South and North America, this is only a matter of time. Efforts are being put into defense and prevention, but at the same time a new type of banana that can be cultivated needs to be found. Which makes Banana Hunter an actual job. You swing through the jungle, vine by vine, keeping an expert eye out for the next big wild banana. Of course,
only if the monkeys don’t get it first.
Photo Credit: Mickelsenstudios.com (no affiliation)
Banana companies are hard at work genetically modifying and creating hybrid bananas, using genes from other fruits, berries, vegetables, fish* in hopes of finding a resistant banana that is edible and tasty. No luck so far, though – although very recent research has potentially found a wilt-resistant cooking banana.
Photo Credit: United-Academics.org (no affiliation)
*(Note: I can’t actually find proper references to fish genes being used in developing hybrid bananas. There is a technique in hybridization called FISH – “Fluorescent in situ hybridization” of plant chromosomes – perhaps this is the origin of the bananafish…)
So, why don’t we go back to the original? Well, thousands of years ago, bananas looked like this:
Photo Credit: Genetic Literacy Project (no affiliation)
Short, stubby, full of seeds, starchy, not tasty. Not exactly the banana of Kevin’s dreams…
Fellow banana mailers from Thailand do make the “Gros Michel” available to anyone wanting to go through the import certification process and then grow their own “Kluai Hom Thong” Gros Michel banana plant.
Photo Credit: Thailandplant.com (no affiliation)
Or, send a monkeybanana instead – it’s a Cavendish and it’s a perfect birthday greeting!
www.monkeybanana.ca (clearly affiliated)