Fungus Threatens Banana Crops

Aug. 14, 2005 — -- The most popular type of banana -- Americans' favorite fruit -- may be threatened by a fungus spreading throughout plantations in Southeast Asia.

According to the International Banana Association, the average American eats more than 28 pounds of bananas a year, compared to just 16 pounds of apples. In addition, the International Banana Association says, more than 96 percent of American households purchase bananas at least once a month.

But an article in the August 2005 edition of Popular Science magazine suggests a fungal disease called Panama Disease Race 4 could threaten the existence of the Cavendish, the most widespread variety of banana sold in markets around the world. Panama Disease Race 4, has been found in Southeast Asia, Australia and Indonesia, and some experts believe it could be only a matter of years before that fungus spreads to Latin America, the United States' main source of its favorite bananas.

In addition, some analysts believe the only way our favorite bananas may be saved from the fungus will be through genetic engineering.

"The only way to save the variety of that we're eating today -- the Cavendish -- is by genetically altering the material through engineering," said Mark Jannot, editor in chief of Popular Science.

Spread of Fungus to Latin America Not Certain

However, the IBA says consumers should feel confident that bananas will be available now and in the future. In a statement, IBA officials said it is not certain that Panama Disease Race 4 will infect the banana crops in Latin America.

"It is far from certain that Panama Disease Race 4 will spread to Latin America," the association said in a statement. "Contamination would have to occur by introducing infected banana plants or infested soil, and quarantine measures and growing practices exist today to minimize those risks. For example, planting material used today is developed with tissue culture techniques, and screening methods exist that detect diseases prior to their release into the environment. Furthermore, it is not fully understood how Race 4 would proliferate in the different soils throughout Latin America and adversely impact the banana growing regions."

Still, if Panama Disease Race 4 spreads to Latin America, one question that may emerge is whether Americans would be willing to eat genetically modified bananas. If not, humans and other primates may be singing the famous Billy Jones tune: "Yes we have no bananas ... we have no bananas today!"