The modern banana, one of the world’s most popular and troubled fruits, may be on the brink of extinction. Though its shape is evocative of sex, the banana is “a sterile, seedless mutant–and therein lies a problem,” Fred Pearce writes for Conservation.
In the wild, bananas are basically inedible due to their hard seeds. Most bananas found in grocery stores are “mutant plants” and “sterile freaks,” Pearce writes. They’re almost all of just one variety, the Cavendish, after its predecessor, the Gros Michel, was ravaged by disease. Today a new disease is stalking the Cavendish, and experts believe it could be just a matter of time before the modern banana goes virtually extinct.
While resistance could be bred in other types of fruits, Pearce reports that “Because all edible varieties of bananas are sterile, introducing new genetic traits to help cope with pests and diseases is nearly impossible.”
For the time being, the disease is kept at bay by massive chemical sprays. “Forty sprayings of fungicide a year is typical,” Pearce writes, “making the Cavendish the most heavily sprayed food crop in the world.” This has led to a variety of health problems in banana workers, including sterility and alarmingly high rates of leukemia and birth defects.
Some are looking to genetic modifications as a last effort to save the troubled banana, but that raises a host of other ethical and environmental problems. And whether or not the general public would eat a genetically modified banana remains to be seen.
For more on bananas’ troubled past, be sure to read the Phillip Robertson’s report from Virginia Quarterly Review on the violence associated with United Fruit, now called Chiquita, in Colombia.