Bananas have been a threatened crop for years. Wired Magazine went so far as to say that the familiar yellow banana “will soon be gone.”
Americans eat about 26 pounds of bananas per person per year, and bananas are a bellwether for pricing — that is, most of us know how much bananas cost. If a grocery store charges the going rate for bananas, we believe that it’s an inexpensive store. For this reason, shop owners keep the price of bananas low. They’re available year round, and they are so convenient in their handy portable carrying cases that just about everybody eats them.
In every case, we’re talking about the Cavendish banana, the only banana shipped worldwide, and the only bananas grown on giant monocultural banana plantations. The monoculture — growing just one variety of a crop — is the problem that may doom the Cavendish banana.
The Canvendish banana
Before the 1970s, the most common banana, and the only one readily available in U.S. grocery stores, was the Gros Michel. In the middle of the 20th century, Panama disease wiped out the Gros Michel completely. Banana growers found the Cavendish banana, which was resistant to the Panama disease. Having learned nothing from their experience with the Gros Michel, banana growers planted monocultural plantations of Cavendish bananas and repeated the experience.
The Cavendish banana represents a $25 billion industry worldwide.
Now the Cavendish is being destroyed by a new variant of Panama disease. Plantations across the globe are falling prey to the new disease variant, and the extinction of the Cavendish is just a matter of time.
What was so great about the Cavendish — or for that matter, the Gros Michel? It’s all about the logistics.
The Cavendish, grown from suckers rather than seeds, produces a very uniform banana. That’s the easiest kind to pack and ship. Automated systems in factories and warehouses can’t handle items with various shapes and degrees of hardness, so the more uniform the fruit, the more its processing can be automated, and the cheaper it is to stock. Uniform sizes of fruit also make it easier to give the fruit uniform pricing.
Cavendish bananas stay green for weeks, which is also important for shipping, and gives them a longer shelf life in stores. They can ripen in transit, but they do so very slowly. The thick skin of the Cavendish also helps it travel well. These characteristics are what made it economically practical to ship bananas from the tropics to other parts of the world where bananas can’t be grown.
However, the fact that Cavendish bananas are all clones (no seeds, so that’s the only way to propagate them) makes them all susceptible to the same disease. Without sexual reproduction, they cannot evolve. This means that they can’t develop resistance to the Panama disease. It’s a pandemic with no treatment and no vaccine. The Cavendish banana has no defense.
Currently, growers are focusing on hygiene.
Puerto Rican bananas
Production of bananas in Puerto Rico is currently much lower than in the 20th century, but the numbers are rising. 2015 was the peak of production for the 21st century, but following Hurricane Maria in 2017, banana production is once again on the rise.
Agriculture has been a challenging area for Puerto Rico, which imports some 85% of the food eaten on the Island. But bananas and plantains are bouncing back.
One reason is ARS’ Tropical Agriculture Research Station in Mayaguez. This facility works on helping local farmers produce crops profitably. This is essential in the short term, but relying on the biodiversity of Puerto Rico’s bananas will also keep the crop profitable for the future. The Grande Naine banana, for example, produces a sweet, uniform banana that could compete with the Cavendish. Williams bananas are also grown commercially in Puerto Rico.
Maricongo plantains are about 90% of the plantains grown in Puerto Rico, but the research station has developed another variety that can be grown profitably: the Superplatano. With good management, this variety will produce uniform fruit with consistent yields — exactly what’s needed for export. Other new cultivars continue to be developed, a good sign for the future.
With its suitability for banana cultivation and the strength of local research programs, Puerto Rico’s bananas could help solve the Cavendish crisis — and provide a strong industry for Puerto Rico’s economic development.