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Almost all “dessert bananas” consumed in the U.S. are of one variety: the Cavendish. Dessert bananas are consumed raw, as opposed to “cooking bananas”, or plantains. This post by Steve Savage on his Applied Mythology blog provides some history of the commercial banana and the reasons why the market is dominated by a single banana cultivar. Many other cultivars exist across the globe, but there are sound economic reasons for the dominance of the Cavendish. For starters, people like them!

Incredibly, bananas became one of the early modern fruit staples, available at an affordable price at all times of the year, even in the dead of winter far from the hospitable growing conditions of the tropics. At that time, the dominant banana variety was the Gros Michel, but it fell victim to a fungus called Panama Wilt in the 1950s (still, populations of the Gros Michel survive today). The Cavendish proved to be an excellent replacement, though banana enthusiasts claim that it is inferior to the Gros Michel. Nevertheless, the Cavendish has reigned as the “top banana” in international commerce ever since. Now, however, the Cavendish is threatened by a relatively new strain of the same fungus that ravaged the Gros Michel. The impact so far has been felt mainly in Asia, but it is expected to spread.

This vulnerability has led to criticism of the industry’s reliance on the Cavendish as an example of “extreme monoculture”. Savage regards this as uninformed. He acknowledges the wide diversity of banana cultivars around the globe, but he asserts that the critics do not have a sound understanding of the highly-calibrated economics of growing, transporting, ripening and delivering bananas at the optimal point in the ripening process. The Cavendish meets the requirements of that process far better than the many other varieties, so its long-time dominance in export markets reflects rational decision-making:

First of all, a banana for export has to be seedless. Many wild bananas have large, very hard black seeds – not something that has much consumer appeal. …

By the way, seedless bananas (or rather, bananas with tiny, undeveloped seeds) are not GMOs, as the term is popularly understood. Domestication of the banana began several thousand years ago as early farmers selectively bred those plants producing the most desirable fruit for consumption: less seeds and more pulp. Savage goes on:

“Next, the banana needs to be productive in terms of overall yield per tree or acre. … The usable per-hectare yields of the Cavendish variety are quite high, and that is why it has been a both economically viable and environmentally sustainable choice for a long time. …

But probably the most limiting requirement for a banana variety to be commercially acceptable is that it has to be shippable. … Very few of the wonderful range of cultivated or wild banana types could ever do that, but because the Cavendish can be shipped this way, the energy and carbon footprint of its shipment is small. This crop has a very attractive ‘food-miles’ profile.

In addition, Savage explains that the ripening process must be manageable and predictable. For all of these reasons, the Cavendish (and the Gros Michel in its time) has been an ideal choice in international commerce.

There are many potential solutions to the new challenge faced by the Cavendish, but they may or may not be able to provide a viable replacement before the new fungus presents a full-fledged crisis. You can learn about some of these alternatives at the Bananas.org forumoron other industry sites. For one thing, the Cavendish has shown to be protected from the fungus when grown in mixed plantations with papaya and coffee. In Taiwan, Cavendish bananas have been bred to resist the fungus. Other varieties are grown in central America and the Caribbean, including a surviving Gros Michel population, though it’s doubtful that it could survive the new fungus. There is also the so-called Apple Banana and the Berry Banana. While a greater variety of banana choices would be welcome to consumers, it is not clear how well these exotic bananas would meet the requirements of growers, shippers, grocers and consumers, and at a price that balances the interests of all parties.

There might also be a role for biotechnology in the effort to replace the Cavendish. Genetic engineering (GE) is a promising avenue through which disease-resistant varieties might be created, as it has with the papaya in Hawaii. It is also possible for GE to enhance the nutritional quality of crops. However, you can bet that food activists will condemn any attempt to leverage GE in banana farming.