Are bananas going the way of the dodo? Scientists say it’s an actual possibility if something isn’t done about an aggressive disease. It’s called the Panama disease, and back in the 1950s, it wiped out the Gros Michel, the most popular banana species sold and eaten in the United States.
At that time, producers frantically switched to exporting the Cavendish banana as a replacement. Today, this variety represents 99% of the world’s banana market.The Cavendish was believed to be immune to Panama disease. But it has since fallen prey in Asia to the deadly fruit fungus.
A wild and mostly inedible banana variety found on the island of Madagascar may hold the cure to save all bananas. Even as the disease ravages other varieties, this tough banana remains healthy. Richard Allen, senior conservation assessor at the Royal Botanic Gardens, says the species (Ensete perrieri) may have a genetic ability to resist the disease, according to the BBC.
But there’s a tiny problem. As of now, there are only five of these Madagascan banana trees left in the wild! Harsh weather, forest fires, and logging have brought them to the brink of extinction.
Scientists say the tree must be saved and cultivated. “We don’t know until we actually do research on the banana itself, but we can’t do the research until it’s saved,” Allen says.
Most of the bananas we eat today are clones. That means that if one is susceptible to Panama disease—all will be. The hope is that the seeds within the potentially immune banana could be cultivated in other banana species. Cross-breeding the Cavendish with the Madagascan banana might lead to a super-hero (and hopefully super tasty) variety able to withstand Panama disease.
The good news is that the Panama disease—despite its name—is currently confined to Asia. This buys time for research and cross-breeding. The bad news is that if the disease spreads to the Americas soon, it could wipe out the world’s leading commercial banana crop.
Whatever happens, it’s a good reminder that tomorrow is not promised. Life in the fallen creation is relatively fragile and temporal. Animals like the wild donkey and the lion, mentioned in Bible times, have long since vanished from Palestine. Countless human empires have crumbled and disappeared. Banana or no banana, 1 Peter 1:25 reminds us, “The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord endures forever.”