Bananas at Risk

January 31, 2020
PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY DREW WILLIS FOR TIME FOR KIDS; BACKGROUND: SERGEY RYUMIN—GETTY IMAGES; EYES: MIRAGEC/GETTY IMAGES; BANANA: ISABELLE ROZENBAUM—GETTY IMAGES

Bananas are one of the most important crops on Earth. They are a top source of food and money for millions of people. But all around the world, banana plants are dying. They’re being attacked by a form of Panama disease called Tropical Race 4 (TR4).

For years, farmers and experts have been afraid that TR4 would hit Latin America and the Caribbean. About 85% of bananas exported worldwide are grown there. On August 8, 2019, those fears came true. Cases of TR4 were confirmed at six banana farms in Colombia. The country declared a national emergency. “In Colombia, [TR4] is incredibly difficult to control,” scientist James Dale told TIME for Kids. “Everybody is absolutely petrified about what’s going to happen.”

PLANTS IN PERIL When a banana plant is infected by Tropical Race 4, it turns yellow, wilts, and dies.

COURTESY QUEENSLAND UNIVERSITY OF TECHNOLOGY, BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA

When Good Bananas Go Bad

TR4 is a fungus that lives in soil. It infects banana plants through the roots. It moves into the stems. There, it stops water and nutrients from entering the plant’s leaves. The plant turns yellow. Then it dries up and dies. TR4 spreads easily, from plant to plant and farm to farm. “No country is immune to the disease,” says Fazil Dusunceli of the Food and Agriculture Organization.

Part of the problem is that 99% of exported bananas are of the same type: Cavendish. This lack of variety is not good for nature. Why? All Cavendish bananas are very similar. So when a disease like TR4 strikes, they are all equally at risk. “Eating Cavendish [bananas] is making the situation worse,” says Altus Viljoen. He’s a professor who studies plant diseases.

BEST OF THE BUNCH A farmer in Costa Rica tends to bunches of healthy bananas.

COURTESY CHIQUITA

Viljoen and others say we should diversify the types of bananas we are growing and eating. This would mean turning to less-common types of bananas, such as the Manzano. It tastes like apple and strawberry.

An Uncertain Future

People in the banana industry are coming together. They want to save the tropical fruit. James Dale, for example, is working with a team of scientists in Australia to introduce a new type of banana. It is resistant to TR4. But some people are against scientists creating new types of plants in a lab. They say people shouldn’t mess with nature.

LAB WORK Australian scientist James Dale created a banana that’s resistant to Tropical Race 4.

COURTESY QUEENSLAND UNIVERSITY OF TECHNOLOGY, BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA

Not everyone is worried about the fruit. “I think there’s a great future for bananas,” Andrew Biles says. He’s an adviser to Chiquita. That’s one of the world’s biggest banana companies.

This isn’t the first time bananas have been in trouble (see “Looking Back”). Even if we find a solution to today’s banana crisis, will history repeat itself, yet again, in decades to come? “Oh, I’m certain it will,” Dale says.

Looking Back

READY TO SHIP Workers pack bananas in crates in 1948.

LIBRARY OF CONGRESS ARCHIVES

Before the 1950s, nearly all the bananas sold in the U.S. were one type. Then Panama disease hit. The banana industry needed a replacement. It chose the Cavendish. This was similar to the banana popular at the time. But it was resistant to Panama disease.

In the 1990s, a new kind of Panama disease, called TR4, hit crops. This put the fruit at risk again.