The banana that we have all grown up eating is the product of one single solitary unique mono-crop cultivar.
The yellow berry that graces the shelf at your produce market is often called the Chiquita Banana. However, it is more appropriately called the CAVENDISH Banana (named after, William Cavendish, the botanist that cultivated it). You can get the Cavendish in various stages of ripeness (stage 1, 2, etc.) and that is pretty much all the variety you’ll get.
–> Please, purchase: Granny Smith Apples, Florida Oranges, Tasti Lee Tomatoes and bananas.
–> Heard that… Granny, Florida, Tasti Lee and bananas!
The type of banana is typically assumed to be… yellow.
Why, may you ask, is there only one type of banana that graces the shelf at the market and not a heaping yellow pile of options that range from Florida to California and everything in between?
Two Compelling Theories
A) Cultivars out there in the banana world that are dessert ready (no seeds and high brix [a refractory measurement of sugar] levels) are not very shelf stable. That is, they don’t make it from the farm to market to table in delicious or aesthetically pleasing form for consumers on a mass scale. Some of the best tasting varieties achieve peak deliciousness when they look like they’ve been bounced out of a rowdy bar and dragged across the pavement. This just isn’t fit for the eye to eat. It’s not a pretty sight and to be quite honest, it’s down right ugly. But, they taste good. They taste way better than the plain tasting Cavendish banana sold at the store. But, the Cavendish banana is yellow. It’s a very yellow banana.
B) The Cavendish has shown strong resistance to problematic diseases that farmers face when growing other types of bananas. This allows the farmer to plant closely for mega crops. Let’s face it, farmers deal in mass quantity to make ends meet. A small crop yield can easily spell doom for the lowly farmer. The Cavendish is easy to grow and can ship green for the market. It’s easy to grow.
Historically Out of Luck
In the 1950’s, an aggressive fungus (Fusarium oxysporum) destroyed entire plantations of the original variety of grocery store banana… the legendary GROS MICHEL.
This was the banana that our grandparents ate.
The taste is said to be far superior to the current variety you find at the store. The disease that wiped out the GROS MICHEL is nick-named, “Panama Disease”. It spreads rapidly.
It wasn’t long before major importers of Gros Michel bananas went nearly bankrupt. Some Gros Michel plants survived being mangled by the disease. However, they were located in remote areas of south east Asia. Over all, consumer demand for bananas went unsatisfied. There was even a popular song written about the plight of the Gros Michel. The lyrics state that “Yes! We have no bananas.”
In 1965, the Gros Michel was declared commercially extinct. Farmers were left with no choice but to burn entire fields. In the wake of devastation, a solution came to fruition. A new variety that was fully resistant to Panama Disease was cultivated and the era of the Cavendish Banana was born. Cavendish was the solution. And, it worked.
Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N., Banana Market Review
But, what if a fatal unstoppable disease were to spread through Cavendish Banana groves and wipe out the vast majority of their population… what backup cultivar exists to take its place on a grand scale for farmers to grow and merchants to stock our grocery shelves?
The photo above was taken in S.Africa on, 03/19/2013. You can see that Fusarium oxysporum has successfully evolved to infect Cavendish Bananas. History has demonstrated that this disease is aggressive and rapidly spread.
There are potential solutions bantered about the table… naturally cross breeding Cavendish bananas with varieties that are resistant to Panama Fungus, complete intervention with genetic modification and / or possible replacement varieties. Scientists are working hard to find a solution. In the meantime, we should continue to celebrate the Cavendish and all of the happiness that it brings.
One thought on “MASSIVE DIE-OFF & The Quest to Grow History’s Lost Banana”
“Yes! We have no bananas” was written in 1923, long before the blight. Its writer, Frank Silver, explained its origin: “About a year ago my little orchestra was playing at a Long Island hotel. To and from the hotel I was wont to stop at a fruit stand owned by a Greek, who began every sentence with ‘Yess.’ The jingle of his idiom haunted me and my friend [Irving] Cohn. Finally I wrote this verse and Cohn fitted it with a tune.”