—by Roxy Bergeron
Recent web articles posted by Nature1, CBS news2 and other scientific and marketing websites raise an alarm about a new strain of an old foe striking the soil where our favorite fruit—the Cavendish banana—grows worldwide.
The health of the Cavendish cultivar, with its pale yielding flesh and fun-to-peel thick yellow skin, is being compromised by a new strain of the soil fungus Fusarium oxysporum f. sp. cubense, or Foc. The Cavendish was cultivated as a major world export after another strain of Foc decimated the Gros Michel variety, a tastier variety known as “Big Mike,”3 which was top banana (sorry) during the 19th century up until the 1950s. While the Cavendish is immune to the Foc of yesteryear, it is susceptible to the new strain, Foc Tropical Race 4, or Foc-TR4.
The Foc-TR4 fungus, a tenacious, nearly invincible, slowly spreading microbe which rots the banana plant, was first discovered in the 1990s in Asia. Since then, it has been busy traveling and has invaded Taiwan, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, China, and northern Australia. Its latest foothold was identified late last year at banana plantations in Mozambique and Jordan.
Should the fungus reach the soil of Latin America, it could be curtains for the Cavendish, the multi-billion dollar industry darling representing 80% of banana exports from that region to the U.S.2 Prices over the last 10 years have jumped to $900 per ton in 2013.
Efforts are underway to find a new banana, either through breeding or genetically engineering a resistant strain. A wild banana from Asia, Musa acuminata ssp. malaccensis, is a promising candidate, as is a genetically tweaked variety of our old friend, the Gros Michel banana.