You soon could be forced to look beyond the mighty Cavendish banana, North America's most popular variety, for your Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) of potassium if the Panama disease fungus has its way. According to "Good Morning America," the fungus has been hitting banana plantations in Southeast Asia, Indonesia and Australia. Although it hasn't yet spread to Latin America (where the Cavendish is grown), it's only a matter of time. Also, black Sigatoka, a leaf fungus, is a less devastating but equally frustrating pest that banana farmers must defend their plants against.
The banana is the world's favorite fruit, says "Popular Science." On average, each American consumes more than 28 pounds of bananas annually (but only 16 pounds of apples), reports the International Banana Association. What's more, roughly 96 percent of U.S. households buy bananas at least every month.
Panama disease, or Race 4, is also called Fusarium wilt of banana. It is one of the most deadly of plant diseases, according to Plant Management Network (PMN). The soil-borne fungus attacks roots, turns certain species of bananas deep red and inedible and can't be controlled by fungicide. The pathogen is believed to have first appeared in Southeast Asia; however, it was first sighted in Australia in 1876, says PMN. If the Cavendish plants in big plantations were infected with Race 4, the species would be greatly affected, reports Snopes, but this wouldn't mean the end of bananas on the planet.
According to Snopes, despite the imperiled Cavendish banana variety, bananas are basically here to stay. There are 300 varieties in a range of sizes and a rainbow of colors, from yellow and red to blue, purple and black. For example, the ice cream banana has a creamy texture and blue skin. The burro has squared sides and a lemony flavor. The macabu presents a firm, sweet pulp and is black when completely ripe, according to Chow.
Because bananas are sterile (seedless), they are particularly susceptible to disease and insect infestation. Cuttings from existing plants are made into new ones, which means they are essentially clones of one another. Without inherent diversity, they evolve over the generations with the same genetic coding and are therefore unable to adapt. This makes the banana plant especially vulnerable to disease within any plant species. For example, the Gros Michel species was destroyed in the 1960s by a strain of Panama disease, according to PMN. The Cavendish was developed as a replacement plant.
Also a threat to the banana plant is black Sigatoka, sometimes called black leaf streak, which is a leaf fungus. It was first recognized in the Sigatoka Valley of Fiji in 1963, according to APSnet. The fungus encourages premature ripening of the fruit and is responsible for 50 percent of fruit loss. Nevertheless, black Sigatoka does not pose nearly the same threat to Cavendish plants as does Panama disease largely because Sigatoka can be managed.
On the large commercial plantations, fungicides and special planting techniques--proper spacing of trees, stripping of diseased leaves and efficient drainage--are employed to control black Sigatoka. Fungicides are applied via helicopter or airplane. All in all, the expense is enormous, accounting for 15 to 20 percent of the final retail cost of the bananas, says APSnet.
To help control the spread of Panama disease, new plantations begin with pathogen-free, tissue cultured plants. This combined with developing new disease-resistant plants, the introduction of friendly bacteria and the use of organic practices means that, yes, we'll have plenty of bananas for decades to come, reports Snopes.
People in the banana biz call the individual fruit "fingers," and the bunches are known as "hands." In fact, the word "banana" derives from the Arabic word for "finger." And bananas aren't really fruit. The banana is the largest herb, according to HealthMad.
- Photo Credit bananas on banana tree image by MAXFX from Fotolia.com