The humble banana is such an integral part of so many different cuisines around the world that it’s hard to think of it as an exotic food. Yet banana varieties that can be grown affordably and exported far and wide are surprisingly rare. The Cavendish banana, which is considered the gold standard in countless countries, is more vulnerable than ever before.
The problem lies in the fact that the Cavendish is an infertile strain. While consumers enjoy the fact that this makes them seedless, it has the farmers and merchants who rely on Cavendish bananas to earn their livings sweating. Every Cavendish banana plant is a clone, genetically identical to every other one. This makes them incredibly prone to any disease that exploits a weakness in their singular genetic code.
As noted in this National Geographic overview, this isn’t a hypothetical scenario to worry about. A genetically-homogenous banana cultivar has been wiped out by disease within living memory.
Older grandparents may still remember that bananas tasted different in the 1940s. This is not just a case of rose-tinted glasses; the dominant strain at the time was the much sweeter Gros Michel banana. The Gros Michel was virtually wiped out by a fungus called fusarium wilt. This blight has made the jump to Cavendish bananas, and it’s already causing trouble on plantations in Asia, Africa, and Australia. Its economic impact is impossible to measure, but it’s sure to grow in the future.
The good news is that researchers are well aware of the problem, and they’re already looking at hundreds of other banana subspecies that could be cultivated – perhaps with genetic modifications, if necessary – on a global scale. What this change might do to the now-familiar taste of bananas is impossible to say.