Bananas are Britain’s favourite fruit. We import 5 billion bananas a year at a cost of £700 million. But our supplies are under threat due to a fungal disease called Panama Disease.
Bananas are a global, traded commodity food. They’re grown and shipped from tropical countries to northern countries like the UK. Although there are some large growers, much of the crop is grown on small family run plantations by smallholders and subsistence farmers.
What made the banana trade such a huge business was that the fruit could be harvested green and then loaded onto a ship and transported to colder countries. The fruit would ripen in transit and be ready to eat when it arrived at our ports.
There are hundreds of varieties of banana but not all of them can be transported easily and cheaply. The first variety of banana to be imported in volume to the UK and other countries like the USA was Gros Michel, also known as ‘Big Mike’
It was larger and generally accepted to be better flavoured than the current Cavendish but disease struck and went through the plantations worldwide like wildfire. A resistant variety was found, the Cavendish, which could be transported successfully and this replaced the Gros Michel.
So when someone of senior years says bananas don’t taste as good as they used to, they’re not mistaken. In India the Cavendish is known as the Hotel Banana because it’s only found in tourist hotels. Indians have their pick of many other better flavoured varieties.
What is Banana Panama Disease?
Panama disease is caused by the Fusarium fungus which infects the root system from the soil and then infests the rest of the plant. The only control is soil treatments which are so detrimental to the environment that they are banned nearly everywhere.
The really nasty bit is that the disease forms spores that remain viable in the soil for decades – worse than clubroot! It’s already established in Darwin Australia, The Philippines and south-east Asia.
It’s very unlikely that a ‘magic bullet’ will be found for Panama disease so the answer has to be a new resistant variety of banana that can also be transported, ripening in transit. The best estimate for developing this is 10 years which means we may face a severe shortage in the near future.
Worse still, to my mind, is that thousands of subsistence farmers who are living on the edge already supplying the global corporations will be thrown into extreme poverty.
Lessons Not Learned
The first lesson ignored was the Irish potato famine of the 1840s. Ireland was very dependent on potatoes and grew one variety that did well in their soil and climate conditions.
Unfortunately it was a variety susceptible to potato blight and when that struck the total crop was gone and famine swept the land.
Panama Disease & Gros Michel Bananas
What really amazes me is that we’ve built a global system to bring an extremely popular foodstuff to the shops on a foundation of sand ignoring the lessons of the past. Worse still, the plan seems to be to rinse and repeat with another cultivar that may be resistant today but tomorrow may succumb to another disease.
Surely a better answer would be to have a wide range of cultivars grown globally. Just as we now buy potatoes by variety name in the shops, we could buy different bananas. Perhaps I’m missing something fundamental but that’s how it seems to me.
There’s a complete web site devoted to Panama Disease in Bananas