I’ve been mulling over reader Gerhard’s question about bananas this week, wondering if the problems with his banana bread could in fact be the result of a change in bananas themselves. It’s occurred to me that, while I always look to process or ingredient changes when a reader reports a problem, Gerhardt could be on to something.
Every year or so a story pops up in the food press about the imminent “extinction” of the banana. When media types say that, what they really mean is that the world’s most popular banana, the Cavendish, is under threat. The Cavendish has been the number one banana cultivar ever since a fungus known as Panama Disease knocked out the previous global favorite title holder, the Gros Michael, back in the early 1960′s. That banana is still grown here and there in the tropics, but it’s the Cavendish that really dominates the American and European markets these days. Some 100 billion Cavendish bananas are consumed around the word each year.
Panama Disease, as I mentioned, is a fungus. It lives in soil and infects banana plants via their root systems. Once inside, it clogs up water vessels causing the plant to wilt and die. Panama Disease decimated Gros Michel crops back when, but Cavendish plants proved largely resistant to it.
All that changed in the early 90′s when a new type of Panama Disease was discovered in Southeast Asia called Race 4. This strain could kill Cavendish plants and proceeded to do so around the Southeast Asian rim. So far it has yet to reach the so-called “banana basket” of Central America, though many fear it could arrive there some day, tracked in, perhaps, on some careless traveler’s shoes. Should that happen there’s really nothing that can be done about it.
Like more than a few popular food crops, top commercial banana breeds lack genetic diversity. Thousands of years of selective breeding have long since deprived them of their seed-producing abilities. Nowadays bananas are reproduced via cuttings, which means that plants of a given banana breed are all exact clones of one other. A disease that can take one down can thus take them all down. So, the Cavendish is certainly at risk. And while Race 4 could probably never totally wipe the Cavendish out, it could do enough damage that Cavendish growers could never fully meet market demands.
What’s being dona about all this? On the one hand, scientists are at this moment furiously splicing Cavendish genes in an effort to produce Race 4-resistant plants (much progress, I’m told, is being made). On the other, alternate varieties of bananas — of which there are some 500 — are steadily being introduced to market.
Most of these are obviously not Cavendish bananas. You can tell they’re different just by looking at them. Our nearby supermarket routinely sells tiny “dwarf” bananas and the shorter, thicker Ducasse bananas. Are there alternate cultivars that look enough like Cavendish bananas to fool the eye of the consumer? I doubt it, I think I’d have heard about it. But who knows? A lot of experimentation is being done out there in banana-producing regions of the world. Possibly, Gerhard, your local market is selling a slightly different cultivar that performs just a little bit differently in your bread.
It seems unlikely, but it’s a theory that shouldn’t be entirely discounted.