Last week, researchers confirmed that a serious fungus has spread across banana plantations in Colombia, and the banana fungus could put the fruit in serious danger.
This isn’t the first time Fusarium oxysporum has had detrimental effects on banana growth, as it impacted plantations in the Philippines decades ago. But as this fungal disease called Panama disease (or fusarium wilt) continues to spread, the outlook for organic banana production appears to be grim.
After this latest discovery, Colombian authorities have declared a national emergency, and all banana plants that are growing near an infected banana fungus plant are being destroyed.
Does this mean that bananas are dying off and you’ll no longer be able to take advantage of banana nutrition? Researchers believe that the fungal disease is spreading slowly, but it will likely require genetic engineering or cross-pollination to create grocery store bananas that can survive the disease.
This is no easy task, so you may have to start considering banana alternatives as the banana fungus spreads.
What Is This Banana Fungus?
Scientists in Colombia confirmed that banana plantations were infected with a variant of the Fusarium fungus called tropical race 4, or TR4.
Researchers have seen this fungus before, invading banana-growing countries in the 1990s, first in Taiwan, and then through Malaysia, Indonesia, China, Australia and the Philippines. Five years ago, the fungus was also discovered in East Africa.
Those involved in banana research are concerned about TR4’s implications and have taken serious measures to reduce the risk of spreading the fungus when they travel from one banana plantation to another. Despite the precautions, Panama disease has proven difficult to control, and it’s spreading faster than researchers anticipated.
This banana fungus lives in the soil and invades the plants through their roots. As a soil pathogen, it’s able to block the plant’s vascular system or vessels that carry water and nutrients, starving the Cavendish banana plants, the most commonly exported banana.
Infected plants turn yellow and begin to wilt, but once noticeable symptoms appear, it’s believed that the fungus has been present in the soil for over a year already. The United Nations indicates that once the disease is established, there is no means of eradication.
Reports state that the fungus cannot be controlled with fungicides or fumigants.
This is why catching the fungus before it spreads has remained impossible, and it also means that the fungus could have spread to other undetectable banana plantations by now.
The (semi) good news? Although the United Nations considers this a serious threat to banana production, researchers believe that it will take years or even decades for the fungus to spread across entire countries and continents.
In the meantime, they are trying to find a banana that can withstand TR4, which will likely require using genetic engineering to create a fungus-resistant variety.
There may also be some banana varieties that can survive the fungus, but they are plantains or bananas with inedible seeds inside. Plant breeders may be able to cross-pollinate them to create bananas that are similar to those in the grocery store.
Other Dangers to Bananas
There’s another major danger to banana plantations: Black sigatoka, a fungal disease caused by the organism Mycosphaerella fijiensis. This is a fungal leaf spot disease that has been found in many major banana exporting countries, including South East Asia, China, East and West Africa, Central and South America, and in Hawaii.
Unlike TR4, which affects the plant’s roots, black sigatoka impacts the leaves of the plant and can lead to reduced fruit yields and premature ripening. Reports show that the disease starts off as small, reddish-brown flecks on the leaves and gradually expands until the leaves turn gray, become sunken and collapse.
In addition to the spread of these devastating banana fungi, the United Nations also reports that the large production scale of the fruit often leads to harsh production methods.
Farmers often employ methods to control irrigation and plant diseases, which has serious environmental impacts. The impact that banana plantations have on soil, water, air and animal biodiversity is a concern.
Another issue surrounding banana production is the rising cost of production combined with competition among international traders and leading retail chains.
The strong downward influence on banana prices impacts worker wages. This tends to negatively impact smallholder farmers who are already working and living in impoverished conditions.
With competition and low banana prices come major obstacles for producers in paying farmers a decent wage and investing in more sustainable production methods.
Healthy Banana Alternatives
We don’t know if bananas will ever become distinct because of these fungal diseases that continue to spread, but it may be a good time to pinpoint some healthy banana alternatives. Here are some comparable options:
- Plantains: Bananas and plantains share similar nutrient profiles, both containing the same important vitamins and minerals (like potassium and folate) per serving. However, plantains are starchier than bananas, they contain less sugar, and they are higher in fiber, vitamin A and vitamin C. Unlike bananas that are commonly eaten raw, plantains are usually cooked prior to consumption. They can be baked, boiled, grilled and fried and then used to make soups, stews, chips and side dishes.
- Pawpaws: The sweet taste of pawpaws is similar to a mix of banana and mango. They are higher in protein than most fruits, high in antioxidants and offer a range of nutrients, including vitamin C, manganese and magnesium. Like bananas, pawpaw can be eaten raw or added to your favorite smoothie recipe.
- Avocado: If you’re used to adding bananas to your smoothie for its creamy texture, try avocado instead. It won’t add the same sweetness, but it does offer a thick and creamy texture that works perfectly in fruit smoothies. Plus, avocado is jam-packed with nutrients, including healthy fats, fiber, vitamin C, folate and potassium.
How Climate Change Impacts This Fungus
It turns out that the spread of banana fungal diseases serves as yet another disturbing effect of climate change.
As temperatures rise and rainfall increases in banana-growing areas of the world, fungi are likely to continue spreading because they thrive in warmer and wetter conditions.
Recent research indicates that climate change has made temperatures better for spore germination and growth and made crop canopies wetter. It’s believed that climate changes have impacted the spread of black sigatoka, the fungal disease that affects banana plant leaves.
- Panama disease is impacting cavendish banana plants across many countries, from Asia to Africa, and now in South America.
- The Fusarium oxysporum fungus is infecting the soil of banana plants and blocking vessels that provide the plant’s water and nutrients.
- Researchers believe that this disease will continue to spread among banana-growing countries. Although it may take years or even decades to see these detrimental effects in our grocery stores, panic about the impact of this banana fungus has set in among scientists and farmers.
- Efforts have been made to study cross-pollinating bananas or even using genetic engineering to create a banana that will be resistant to the fungus. Of course, research suggests that climate change is only contributing to the spread of these types of diseases.