rotten or diseased Cavendish bananas on ground

Banana Extinction Lies Spur Support For Bill Gates’ New GMO

This fruit could be extinct in 10 years – or as few as 5 – if the headlines by CNN, NPR, and Snopes are to be taken literally.

Wait, Snopes… I thought they were fact checkers?!

They are. They cover not just food, but every topic under the sun. Perhaps that’s why they picked up most – but not all – of the subtleties behind this story.

Why is the banana going extinct?

How many species of bananas and plantains there are is more than 1,000 according to Dole. A large diversity, but most people have only eaten one species, which is the Cavendish (scientific name: Musa acuminata Cavendish subgroup). (1)

Well over 99% of bananas eaten in North America are of this type. They are the most popular species of fruit consumed in the United States, even beating out all types of apples combined.

On a per capita basis, Americans eat 46 bananas per year compared to 32 apples (2).

Cavendish is a sterile species which cannot reproduce on its own and is artificially bred using the “cloning” techniques of re-planting cuttings and suckers (or side shoots).

Tropical Race 4 fungus cultured in Petri dish
This is Fusarium oxysporum which causes a type of Fusarium wilt known as Panama disease. Photo: USDA (3)

Since the worldwide crop is genetically identical, it is particularly susceptible to disease. Once a parasite evolves to attack this plant, it is effective against virtually the entire species, since there is no diversity among their immune systems. Fungi such as Panama Disease (Tropical Race 4) and Black Sigatoka are becoming increasingly effective against the Cavendish species. That is why the banana is expected to go extinct in the near future.

What the media reports and Snopes has “verified” about this topic is technically correct, but it’s only part of the story.

There are other scientific opinions on these plant pandemics.

Professor André Drenth at the University of Queensland knows a thing or two. He has a masters in plant breeding from Wageningen Agricultural University in the Netherlands and a PhD from Wageningen and Cornell. The latter of which was largely focused on Phytophthora (potato fungus) and he’s worked for decades combating tropical plant diseases. That includes leading the Disease and Pest Prevention Program at CRC (Australia’s Cooperative Research Centres). (4)

In 2016, PLOS Genetics published an article titled (5):

Combating a Global Threat to a Clonal Crop: Banana Black Sigatoka Pathogen Pseudocercospora fijiensis (Synonym Mycosphaerella fijiensis) Genomes Reveal Clues for Disease Control

After that was published, Drenth said the risk had been “greatly exaggerated” (6):

“Black Sigatoka has only been in Australia once, in 2001 in Tully, and it was quickly eradicated”

Over 5 million domestically grown bananas are consumed in Australia every day. The potential to wipe out supply in 5 years is said to not be present in Australia, since imports of the crop are banned.

Black Sigatoka disease
What a Black Sigatoka infection looks like. Photo credit: CIAT [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
In recent years, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations has stated the Black Sigatoka is “currently the most serious banana disease” and not Tropical Race 4 (7).

The reason was because Black Sigatoka spreads easily through informal island trade and thrives in hot and humid climates.

However the effect of Tropical Race 4 (TR4), which is a newer strain of Panama disease, is presently considered to be worse by many. You can’t control TR4 with fungicides and it can survive in the soil for decades, even without the plants being present. A few plantations in Mozambique and the Middle East have already experienced this devastation first hand.

India, China, Uganda, Philippines, and Ecuador are the top 5 countries for banana production according to the FAO. It is true that they’re at great risk for TR4, since they have relaxed import/export laws and shared borders with other countries. Australia differs in those aspects, making extinction there of Cavendish much less likely, at least in the next few years as some news outlets have hyped.

Regardless of whether or not the Panama disease, Black Sigatoka, or another fungus wipes out the Cavendish in coming years, it does not mean your protein shakes and acai bowls will need to be banana-free in the future.

It’s possible the Cavendish might disappear from commercial trade in the future, but that could be a good thing. There are alternative species which are actually better for you.

This is a self-inflicted problem. If it’s not these two fungal threats, there will be others down the road. This problem will always loom on the horizon, because we are artificially breeding a sterile fruit which means no immune diversity among them.

Technically it’s an herb which grows on a plant – not a fruit on a tree – but you get the point.

You would think we would have learned from the past that the world’s most popular fruit can’t be grown this way after the last banana that went extinct. Or so you may have heard…

Gros Michel banana extinct?

Prior to the Cavendish, the most popular species cultivated was the Gros Michel or “Big Mike” in English. It too was bred using cuttings, so all of the plants had identical genetics.

From the 1800’s onward, it was the most popular species for commercial exports. That changed beginning in the 1930’s when Panama disease – an earlier version – began to wipe out the crop. By 1960, no one was growing it in Central and South America or the Caribbean. Many sources report that the Gros Michel is the type of banana that went extinct, but that is not an accurate statement.

Growers transitioned to the Cavendish since that earlier strain of Panama Disease was not a threat to it. There was never an extinction of this historical real banana, which is what some people call it. If Big Mike really is extinct, then what you see here in the hand must be a zombie back from the dead…

what fresh Gros Michel bananas look like

It’s also worth mentioning that the older Tropical Race strain which caused that switch was around since 1899. It took many decades until it rendered Big Mike too expensive for commercial production. (8)

You could argue it took longer to wreck widespread havoc, because trade wasn’t as robust back then. The rebuttal would be that sophisticated countermeasures, such as today’s testing and pesticides, weren’t around then either.

Where can you buy Gros Michel banana? Not at your average supermarket. Not even a place like Whole Foods carries it.

To get Gros Michel, you have to go direct to an independent farmer. Seaview Farms on the Big Island of Hawaii sells dwarf Gros Michel as well as the regular varieties (highgate, medium, tall).  They can’t ship them, you have to buy locally at their farm stand.

If you live in a warm climate or want to try growing one indoors, believe it or not you can actually get the living plant on Amazon.

Because it’s so rare and most say the taste is better, it’s a coveted delicacy. If you can afford the nine-course meal and several month waitlist for a seat at The French Laundry – which is among the most expensive restaurants in America – then you might encounter the Gros Michel depending on the menu that day.

If you cannot afford it or even if you can, we recommend skipping French Laundry. For $310 per person excluding wine, this snobby Napa Valley restaurant is totally overrated. Even if it is good, when you are left hungry after spending so much money, what kind of scam is that?!

In Superfoodly’s hometown of Los Angeles, no one sells the Gros Michel variety at any farmers market. There have been sightings elsewhere in Southern California and Florida, but you see them as often as a flying saucer. They’re only being sold by hobbyists from backyard gardens. Where you can readily buy Big Mike is Southeast Asia, where it is still grown on a larger commercial scale.

If not genetically modified, Cavendish will become an extinct banana flavor eventually, but only among the large scale producers like Dole, Chiquita, and Fresh Del Monte. Even when that happens, there will always be smaller operations that still grow and sell it, just like how Gros Michel is still available 60 years after its alleged “extinction.”

Are bananas genetically modified?

Dole bananas for sale at the supermarketCurrently 100% of the bananas for sale in the world are non-GMO. Even though their DNA hasn’t been artificially altered, they have been selectively bred over many generations to produce what you currently know to be a banana – a seedless, intensely sweet creamy pulp which is uniform in appearance.

The version you eat is so unnatural that the plants can’t even breed on their own. Not even the organic versions.

Their dietary fiber, vitamin B6, and potassium are often touted as health benefits. If you were to eat the wild versions from nature, you would probably be better off.

The most accurate gauge of antioxidant content is ORAC value. What Cavendish clocks in at is relatively low at 795 (per 100 grams). Even a plain baked white potato is 40% higher, with an ORAC of 1,138.

Research out of Cornell concluded that “bananas and melons had the lowest” measurement of antioxidants among 25 of the most commonly consumed fruits in the US (9).

Very little research exists on the hundreds of wild species, but many appear to offer greater benefits than the pretty and sweet versions you are accustomed to.

Wild bananas like the Musa acuminata Colla have been found to have some different pharmacological activities “and can be used in designing potent therapeutic agents” (10).

wild banana
This is an example of what a wild variety looks like. They have seeds, some more than others. Many are more rounded vs. elongated. Photo by Warut Roonguthai [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
In many countries such as India, cooking the unripe fruits by pressure cooking is a common way people eat them. When scientists prepared the wild and commercial using this method and then measured their phytonutrients, they found (11):

“Wild species presented higher phenolics, tannins, DPPH, ABTS and FRAP activity than commercial ones.”

Those alphabet soups are other methods for measuring antioxidants. For one species in particular, they claimed:

“This wild species may be an alternative to commercial ones and will be valuable to consumers for protecting from chronic diseases.”

Sure, bodybuilders may want the high sugar for their post workout protein smoothie, but diabetics don’t want a high-glycemic snack. The variations in sucrose, glucose, and fructose vary greatly among the species and can offer something for everyone, instead of the current one-size-for-all fruit.

Here’s a look at how 11 types compare (12):

fructose, glucose, and sucrose content of 11 wild banana varieties

Best of all, the wild plants breed the old fashioned way. Instead of cuttings, the pollination of flowers and production of seeds means that there is immense genetic diversity. The plants within a given species are not clones of one another. That means they’re naturally more resilient to fungus, bacteria, and other parasites.

Why doesn’t the industry sell any of these others?

For the same reason your grandparents could only buy bleached white Wonder Bread. Just like those pretty loaves, the Cavendish has a long shelf life and doesn’t tarnish easily during transport. It’s also chock full of sugar, so of course it’s delicious.

We wised up to Wonder Bread and have since adapted less refined grains. When will the same happen with America’s bestselling fruit?

Instead of switching to more natural varieties which breed on their own, stories that the banana could be extinct in 10 years are being used to drum up support for genetically modified bananas.

It is not the literal extinction of the Cavendish, but rather a GMO replacement which is the more likely thing to happen during the next 5 to 10 years.

Bill Gates’ GMO to save the day?

microscope looking at Petri dishThe history of the GMO banana is short. It started a few years ago when the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation plowed at least $15 million into developing a species with higher vitamin A, E, and iron content, as well as designing it to have better resilience to diseases. Queensland University of Technology developed the frankenfruit. (13)

The motive behind it is well-intentioned; to boost nutritional content for this food that’s a staple in India, Uganda, Rwanda, and other countries whose populations are suffering from malnutrition.

Now to be clear, you can’t blame Bill Gates for what’s currently going on. But that initiative is being used to bolster support for GMO bananas. Like what the non-profit Mother Jones said in an article with their headline “The Only Way to Save Your Beloved Bananas Might Be Genetic Engineering” (14).

In 2017, it was announced a trial of GMO Cavendish will be grown in a 14 acre (6 hectare) field in the Northern Territory of Australia. Unlike the red banana that was funded by Gates for malnutrition, this GMO is for resistance to the Panama TR4 disease. It’s being touted as a way to avoid extinction, since 4 of the lines tested so far demonstrated “either complete or very high levels of resistance.” (15)

GMOs are not the “only way”

You can argue there are pros and cons to genetically manipulating the species, but you can’t claim that’s the “only way” to solve this problem.

We wouldn’t even be having this problem in the first place if we were eating species which naturally bred on their own!

Sure, the real wild non-GMO bananas aren’t as pretty as the Cavendish, but they might be better for your health and the plants would naturally be more resilient to fungal attacks like the TR4. Seems like a better way to solve the problem, don’t you think?